Who listens to Rag’n’Bone Man? I don’t mean that facetiously. Who puts this on in the morning, while walking their dog? Who likes the feel of his falling minor chords upon their temporal lobe? Who identifies with his vulnerable roar? I have known people who seek out certain kinds of songs to help actualise their feelings – sad music of the anthemic kind, like the National and Frightened Rabbit; the sound of sad fists held aloft in a sad crowd. Rag’n’Bone Man goes for anthems on his new second album, which is rather overlong, with 15 tracks and two versions of the same song (one recorded with Pink and one without).
Pop has been getting sadder for several years. In 2018, a study by Popbitch revealed 87 per cent of number ones that year, including those by Ed Sheeran, were found to be in a minor key, compared to 29 per cent of number ones in 2015. Tempos were also found to be dropping rapidly, to below the rate of a human heart. The American Psychological Association proved modern pop lyrics were more self-focused and negative than the lyrics of old (no shit!). Commentators then tried to make a connection between the music and times of austerity and unrest, which didn’t really hold up. Sad music is about personal struggle.
Rag’n’Bone Man didn’t come out of a television talent show, but he wears his vulnerability as well as anyone who did. His sensitivity, set alongside his large frame and tattoos, evokes the TV gimmick: “Did that voice really come out of that person?” Born Rory Charles Graham, in East Sussex, he wanted to be an MC and started on the Brighton grime scene. But the gods – and Columbia Records – pushed him towards blues and soul. His 2016 hit “Human” (B minor, 75 beats per minute) went to number one in at least 15 countries and is currently used on the Gillette razor ad.
For his second album, Life By Misadventure, he went to Nashville, which is where all young British acts go to get exposed to the classiest co-writes. There is vintage sadness in the DNA of some of the songs: “Breathe In” was co-written by Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin, who are responsible for the saddest song ever written, “I Can’t Make You Love Me”, released by Bonnie Raitt in 1991. “Alone” has more than a passing whiff of Stevie Nicks’s “Landslide”, the second saddest song ever written. It was inspired by a friend of Rag’n’Bone’s who talked about how she was being judged for not getting married and having children. It’s a great subject: really sad songs contain some sense of resignation, a generosity of spirit. But elsewhere Rag’n’Bone Man is more protesting – “Talking To Myself”, about his recent divorce, is hard to listen to: “I can’t take another minute in this room… Where would I go when I need perspective, when the darkness seems relentless?” And the warmly melodic “Anywhere Away From Here”, the single with Pink, seems to be about the strain of being famous. He says that “when the lights go up”, he’s not very happy, which is a bit of a shame.
Nashville is luxury for musicians: you’re kitted out with gospel choirs as plush as shagpile and tender piano recorded so close you can hear the felt on the hammers. But despite the glossy production, the “songwriting camp” effect cries out in the clichés of this album: “Dreams are sold without a lifetime guarantee”, Rag’n’Bone Man sings on “Old Habits Die Hard”. In another song, he even says: “Time don’t wait for no one.” The music sounds slightly dated, too – not surprising when you’ve hit the world of TV razor ads and need to maintain a connection to a mass audience. “Somewhere Along The Way” is one of those comfy blues numbers that could have appeared on a grizzled legend’s comeback album produced by T Bone Burnett in 2008. On “Time Will Only Tell” (there he goes again), he wonders, “are we listening to ourselves?”, and it sounds like a bit of 1990s neo soul. “Crossfire” has a Noughties feel, with a bit of the “millennial whoop” about it, and it builds like a Coldplay track, conjuring images of a big stage with men, far apart, whacking keyboards.
There are some playful moments buried at the end of the record: “Party’s Over” has an interesting kind of pomp about it, with those grand, diminished rock chords you hear in Foo Fighters songs. But it’s the 13th track on the album, by which time even the saddest fists may be lowered, and the saddest fans might have decided to cheer themselves up with something else.