Despite only recently breaking out into the mainstream, Rory Graham, also known as Rag’n’Bone Man, has been musically active since his mid-teens, rapping in a drum and bass collective under the pseudonym Rag ‘N’ Bonez at the age of 15. Graham saw a respectable amount of underground success as part of the Run Committee, a hip hop group that he was invited to join by his friend and peer Gi3mo, and who went on to support KRS-One and Pharoahe Monch. Hip hop proved not to be Graham’s calling, however, as he began to perform as a singer at acoustic gigs — even opening for legendary singer-songwriter Joan Armatrading — playing mainly blues-orientated music. Graham’s blues stylings would carry onto the handful of EPs he released between 2012 and 2015 and provided the foundation for his developing musical identity. The singer’s debut album on Columbia Records, Human, comes following the success of the hit lead single and title track from the record, and he has since been a hotly followed artist, even winning the 2017 BRITs Critics’ Choice Award. The personality conveyed on his Human single seemed to pique the interest of music fans and critics for similar reasons to artists like Gregory Porter or Hozier, in that it displayed an appealing and accessible presentation of genres such as blues, soul and R&B, whilst still being clearly rooted in a pop idiom. This, paired with his distinctive and rather likeable image, has led to Graham, under his new pseudonym Rag’n’Bone Man, becoming somewhat of a household name in blues and soul-influenced pop music. As a result, his debut certainly warrants talking about, as many were curious as to how Graham would fare on his first full-length release. Indeed, he is not the first singer-songwriter of his kind, so in order to leave an impression on his listener, Graham has been tasked with the challenge of translating his radio-friendly blues and soul style into a focussed and fleshed-out project. As for the results this album sees, much of Human follows a cut and dried formula that makes for some mixed moments and leads to an end product that may lack the staying power an artist like Rag’n’Bone Man needs in order to remain relevant beyond the initial hype following his first hit single. There are nevertheless a handful of moments that warrant merit and perhaps allude to Graham’s muscular voice remaining a loud one in the music industry for at least a short while longer.
As previously mentioned, this debut album from Rag’n’Bone Man opens with the title track and hit single Human. It’s easy to understand why this song would see such great success and it certainly is one of the strongest cuts on the record. The instrumentation across the verse is sparse but effective, in that it allows Graham’s robust vocals to establish his soul-tinged vocal style. The smooth bass line is a fitting accompaniment to Graham’s singing, and the other vocal and string embellishments are successful in adding subtle textures to the verses. The slight pause before the chorus makes the minimal but surprisingly powerful instrumentation and Graham’s belting vocals all the more forceful when they kick in. The sluggish beat, again, is felicitous given Graham’s meaty vocals, and the undeniably catchy melody is most definitely enough to explain its success on the charts. Human really is a very admirable hit single. The infectious chorus would most likely be enough for it to have seen commercial success, but this track brings substance that exceeds just a catchy hook.
The only other single from Rag’n’Bone Man’s debut is the third track, Skin, which follows a noticeably more predictable path. Like Human, it features a memorable chorus courtesy of Graham’s attractive singing, which is accompanied by another solid beat and some soulful backing vocals that appear at numerous places on this record, almost as a reminder that an appreciation of blues and soul went into the music featured here. However, beyond the chorus, Skin brings little more of note to the table, rather it feels as if the hook was written with the intention of being another hit single, and then the rest of the composition was simply built around it. The result isn’t a bad song, rather it’s a song that sees a simple structure and execution that only just about pays off thanks to the radio-friendly refrain. Indeed, Skin unfortunately blends in with many of the surrounding cuts in the tracklisting, a handful of which suffer from similar problems. Particularly around the middle of the record, the memorable moments are notably less frequent. Love You Any Less, for instance, seeks to assume the role of the stripped-back, piano-based ballad, much in the vein of what one would expect to hear from the likes of Adele. However, such a rudimentary style of song highlights the fact that Graham’s voice, whilst technically accurate and powerful, is rather similar to many other male singers working within a similar field. The result is a track that loses the definitive identity featured on songs like Human and, indeed, if this was Graham’s approach on all of these songs, he would have a very hard time standing out from the crowd.
Truth be told, the better moments on Human are quite commonly the times during which Graham’s awareness and appreciation of blues and soul music is most palpable. Die Easy is a bold song, featuring only Graham’s vocals, which have an air similar to a singer like Ray Charles or Son House, the latter being an apt comparison given he also recorded some solo a cappella blues songs with Grinnin’ In Your Face and John the Revelator. The gruff lyrics that touch on death, alcohol, the Devil and other blues tropes demonstrate Graham’s understanding of the blues very well and retain that slight attitude that an artist like Rag’n’Bone Man would benefit from substantially. This is a bold song, although the fact that it’s the closing track on the standard version of the album unfortunately makes it easy to brush it off as simply being a quirky closer. Other stand-out songs include Innocent Man for reapplying the formula used on the lead single to create another catchy, soulful tune with some lovely instrumentation, and As You Are for seemingly employing some of Graham’s previous experience in the rap game on the instrumental side of things, with the crackled piano phrases accompanied by a funky drumbeat sounding just like a hip hop sample. Ultimately, Graham holds himself best on the songs that show the clearest influence from blues and soul. Indeed, if Graham could find the balance between channeling his inspirations whilst capturing and conveying the character that has helped boost his career thus far, he could be looking at some really memorable material in modern popular music.
Human carries an appealing soulful vibe throughout much of its runtime, but this is applied to varying degrees of success. There are really no particular moments on here that jump out to me as being bad, rather there are a substantial amount of forgettable moments that will struggle to bear the burden of maintaining Rag’n’Bone Man’s relevancy beyond the initial excitement following his breakout. This said, there are enough moments on this album that demonstrate Graham’s ability to bring a new found pop appeal to blues and soul music for me to suppose that a more focussed record from the singer-songwriter could create a similar level of hype around some new material that may prove to have more staying power. For the time being, however, Human is a mixed release and, whilst the better tracks may warrant revisiting the album for some people, these moments alone are not enough to convey a yet fully-formed sound for Rag’n’Bone Man.
The Vinyl Verdict: 6/10