If the idea of anyone being dubbed a ‘soulfully subversive singer’ seems a bit of an odd one, let’s start by considering that this album is equal parts Richard Pryor and Curtis Mayfield. That’s the black humour of Pryor, the soul of Mayfield and the social observations of both. While concept albums are nothing new, there’s a theme running through the album, as Bhiman draws on his own upbringing as the son of immigrants for the album.
The album starts off with the delightfully catchy shuffle of ‘Moving to Brussels.’ Unusually for a song, it’s been described as an immigrant’s Dear John letter to his former dictator (as you have probably guessed, we are not in indie-by-numbers territory here). ‘There Goes The Neighborhood’ tackles the so-called ‘white flight’ concept -’And the White House turns to grey/and the black won’t wash away’ he sings, ironically but beautifully with his warm tenor.
Much like with Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On, Bhiman understands the idea that you can deal with pretty serious topics, but you can put these across in a musical way, and his way adds music and humour (did I mention the humour? Seriously, it’s an important factor here). So he describes being interrogated by a jealous lover as being waterboarded – ‘Waterboarded (In Love).’ And the observation in ‘Bread and Butter‘ that ‘Everyone wants to be a star – no-one wants to know the chords’ is pretty profound on many levels: we can take it as doing the groundwork for making progress and gaining recognition in life or a snipe at the talent show light entertainment malaise that makes up Saturday night TV.
Perhaps the strongest song here is ‘Up In Arms.’ Written about the fall from grace of Black Panther Huey Newton, the track ends with a gunshot. It’s not sensationalist, it’s not there to shock, but it is a very distinctive final note. And with police brutality coming under the spotlight once again (yet again) in the US, it’s particularly appropriate.
Most artists can show proficiency at at least one or two things, but the fact is that on this evidence Bhiman is equally strong as a singer, lyricist and guitar player. Like Richard Thompson strong. And while the aforementioned Pryor and Mayfield have their imprints on this record, it’s an impressive feat that it recalls the great soul albums of the 1970s from the likes of Messrs. Wonder, Hayes and Gaye – and of course, Mayfield, in its execution.
Where does this fit in in 2015′s musical world? Part of the many strengths is that there aren’t many records out there that combine this level of musicality with the observations and humour. Maybe there haven’t been in a while. But safe to say this is one of the most original albums you will hear this year.