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Loyle Carner - Not Waving, But Drowning (Album Review)

Wednesday, 08 May 2019 Written by Helen Payne

Loyle Carner isn’t like the rest. His sound, smooth and jazz-inflected, feels like it’s in direct opposition to the brash, lo-fi extremes of Soundcloud rap, while his demeanour also sets him at odds with the gonzo, face-tattooed rappers occupying the charts.

His personality, vocal tones and south London accent all work together on his second album, ‘Not Waving but Drowning’, to create an inimitable and instantly likeable flow. Lead single Ottolenghi is testament to this, striking a perfect balance of muted synths, beats and guest vocals from Jordan Rakei, along with a simple yet touching narrative. Its title is even a nod to his sideline in running a cookery school for kids who, like him, are living with ADHD.

In fact, each track on the record is as pleasant in its own right. Ice Water, Carluccio, You Don’t Know and Loose Ends are all magnetic songs with old-school samples and an excellent array of special guests, yet despite being interspersed with real snippets of his life—ordering lunch at a cafe, watching the football with his mates, chatting about tracks in the studio—they’re all a bit too samey.

What we’re presented with, time and again, is an instrumental phrase as introduction, a sixteen bar verse, a guest vocalist for the chorus, and Carner switching between repeating the name of the song and lazily spouting his irksome “ahs”. It’s a formula that can work for one or two tracks, but not for a whole album.

However, as a rapper and lyricist Carner’s narrative is the salient factor, and his stories are definitely gripping enough to hold their own, despite their accompanying instrumentation lacking variety. The record’s focal point is a 1957 Stevie Smith poem of the same name, which depicts a man who drowns at sea because his signal for attention was misread by friends on the beach as a wave.

Carner applies this as a metaphor for the forceful pressures of modern day life making one pretend to be OK even when struggling. He weaves around this idea by narrating some touching moments in his life, confessing his emotions, and generally allowing the listener to feel however they want to feel.

Opener Dear Jean is a letter telling his mum that he’s moving out to live with his girlfriend, while closer Dear Ben is a reply from Jean herself, expressing her love and pride for her son. This bookend framework is deeply emotive, and it’s a good way to pre-empt how things will pan out on ‘Not Waving But Drowning’.

As well as numerous expressions of parental and romantic love throughout the album, it is the nostalgic lament of a platonic relationship on Krispy that causes a bittersweet smile. On top of a simple piano refrain, Carner divulges the plans he and his friend had made together before his career blew up. “Before another show was just a dumb chore, we’d lay awake at yours dreaming of an encore, of all the things we’d say when we won awards,” he raps. “Now two best friends who shared the torch barely talk”.

‘Not Waving but Drowning’ is a collection of delightful stories and songs that work well individually by tugging the listener’s heartstrings, but quickly become monotonous, bleeding into one another due to a lack of stand out musical elements.

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