I love soul music. I grew up listening to some of the greatest soul music ever created, by some of the greatest soul singers to walk this planet. Motown. Amazing songs. Fantastic singers. From the wonders of Marvin Gaye all the way up to Michael Jackson unveiling the famous moonwalk at the Motown anniversary celebrations (even though Jeffrey Daniels had already performed up, but let’s overlook that for one moment). Then something happened. There was a change in the nature of soul music. It was no longer about the connection between the soul of the singer and the audience. Rather it seemed to be about the power of the voice, or whether the singer was able to create complicated vocal gymnastics. I think this started with the powerhouse vocals of Whitney Houston, and carried through the likes of Mariah Carey. This led to the current fascination (as epitomised by endless contestants on The X Factor or The Voice) with massive voices singing endlessly over complicated vocal lines to show soul. Somehow soul music lost its soul.

So it is with huge relief that I am now seeing a new generation of singers, such as the incredibly bearded (and impressively tattooed) Rag ‘n’ Bone Man, who are rediscovering that soul is something deeper than a simple vocal style that depends entirely upon complex vocal tics and tricks. Singers who are rediscovering the blues without necessarily considering themselves as having to slavishly recreate it. It is about the search for real depth and understanding. It is about connectivity with real soul again and searching for something that indicates who you really are. I suppose that it could easily be argued that all singers should really aspire to be blues / soul singers.

Maybe I’m foolish
Maybe I’m blind
Thinking I can see through this
And see what’s behind
Got no way to prove it
So maybe I’m blind
But I’m only human after all
I’m only human after all
Don’t put your blame on me
Don’t put your blame on me


“Human” starts with a hip hop inspired shuffling rhythm, perhaps inspired by Rag ‘n’ Bone Man’s previous musical experience as an MC for a drum ‘n’ bass crew when he was only 15, and a dirty low bass-line that indicates what follows is likely to be gritty and urban (in the parlance of those pesky “kidz” in da hoodies… errr, man!). In the mix, there are celebratory whoops and “yeahs” and gospel inflected hand-claps, and then a slightly processed voice proclaims “I’m only human” in a way that sounds just slightly less than human but not quite totally robotic.

Hey, so far so urban, but it is when the verse begins that you then hear that voice! And oh what a voice it turns out to be.


This is soul. Or it is blues? Whatever it is, I really like it.

“Human” deals with the fragility of human existence, and the conflicting demands that come along with our shared human experience. It pleads for a little more shared understanding whilst also bemoaning the tendency to expect others to solve our problems for us, or to blame others for decisions that have turned out wrong. As with all great soul and blues music, it walks the line between raw emotion and social commentary in a way that perhaps we had lost sight of or forgotten could be achieved by a simple song of just over three minutes duration. Quite simply, it is a hymn for the vulnerable and is a stunning achievement of soul, blues, gospel and “real” music (whatever the hell that is supposed to be these days).

Above everything else, there is the voice. Rather than show us a flashy display of technical virtuosity, Rag ‘n’ Bone Man simply allows us to make a connection with him and, consequently, connect with the subject matter of the song. The power is in the simplicity of the song but behind this is real depth of emotion. It is a thing that I had once taken for granted and had somehow disappeared from so much contemporary music bar a few other “old souls” who could achieve the same masterful achievement. It somehow reminded me of that time back in the early 80s where you had the juxtaposition of synthesised machine music with voices that managed to combine soul and emotion. The likes of Annie Lennox with the Eurythmics and Alison Moyet with Yazoo were experts at this synthetic soul. Except this is urban (expect a witty witticism that features some humorous use of “da” instead of “the” – oh, been there and done that already. Sorry.).

Unsurprisingly, many people are viewing the success of Rag ‘n’ Bone Man as a reaction of “real music” in response to the Auto-tuned vacuity of much we have recently seen in modern pop that often filters out the emotional connection that his gritty vocals seems to emphasise.

Here is the voice in a stripped back acoustic version (yeah, I know – I hate the idea that an acoustic version is somehow a valid statement of a musician’s worth as it leads to bizzare things like Status Quo and Simple Minds releasing acoustic albums) that was featured on the Jools Holland show:


Some people got the real problems
Some people out of luck
Some people think I can solve them
Lord heavens above
I’m only human after all
I’m only human after all
Don’t put the blame on me
Don’t put the blame on me


I fear for the future of Rag ‘n’ Bone Man. He has already been given the Critics’ Choice award at the Brits, something that has already been done by Adele and Sam Smith. Here lies the danger: to achieve the level of success that will now be expected of him, or those comparisons will always have a negative tone, he might find himself forced into losing the rough edges that gives his music such a genuine blues and soul power and turn it into something more commercially acceptable and slightly blander in order to sell those mega-units.

The first sign will be a guest slot on the next Jools Holland Hootnenanny doing a bleeding big band version of “Human”.

Ah fuck.

I can only live in hope that he refuses to go down the bland but mega-selling mega bucks route – if he does however, don’t put the blame on him.


UPDATE – it has been a while since I wrote this blog, and the “Human” album has been a consistent feature on my phone simply due to the quality of the music, and that continued quality of voice and soul that caught my attention when i heard the single last year. The big dirty bass line and the uplifting gospel soul chorus still lifts my spirits in a way that I feared had been lost from the more formulaic variation of soul (and r’n’b) that had gained commercial value over the years. However, when I discovered the two Jools Holland liver versions (always the sign of muso acceptance), my heart sank a little at the sight of him embracing what could easily turn out to be a dive into blandness. If I want smooth, I’ll listen to Gregory Porter. Rag ‘n’ Bone Man needs an element of grit that turns the dirt into a diamond.

I don’t expect to hear any new material from Rag ‘n’ Bone Man anytime soon, and I still fear that his next output will be dominated by pressures to replicate that elusive “success” rather than following his muse (wherever that decides to take him). I can only hope that the future shows Rag ‘n’ Bone Man to be a true artist rather than a puppet of the industry. Keep your fingers crossed my friends.




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