Jordan Rakei: Wallflower

Soul is all about sensitivity, but it is possible to be oversensitive.

- No bones about it, Jordan Rakei has been one of my favourite artists of the last few years. A neo-soul smoothy in a sea of such smoothies, Rakei still manages to stand out thanks to his skillful, jazzy musicianship, complex but compelling songwriting and a voice that recalls the late, great, Jeff Buckley.

When a guy is based in Brisbane you don’t expect the industry to drop everything and come calling. As much as I like him, I was thinking, at best, there’d be a vague nod from the rest of the world, barely acknowledging yet another under-appreciated, antipodean talent. Sometimes it’s great to be wrong: things have actually been happening for Rakei and not slowly!

I think I can trace it back to his guest-spot on Disclosure’s 2015 record, Caracal. Suddenly Jordan Rakei’s Facebook likes took an alarming leap skyward. In the glare of that spotlight Rakei has really come into his own. Six months later his rather impressive debut full-length, Cloak, dropped on his own label. Six more months down the track, even while dabbling in multiple side-projects -KwaliaDan Kye- Rakei sewed up a deal with prestigious UK label Ninja Tune; and obviously not one to procrastinate, only a year after his first full-length, Rakei’s second one, Wallflower, is upon us.

The difficult nature of sophomore releases is a cliche, but, if Rakei has one he can at least console himself that twelve months on, he can put the heartache behind him and just release a brand new platter. So, uh, how is it then? Introspective, subtle. It’s a record for the kind of person Rakei is. For all that he is a virtuoso who can leave most other popular musicians gawping at his chops, he’s not really about showing it off. First full-length, Cloak, was pretty aptly titled in that respect. It was a very spiritually-driven record, Rakei’s lyrics recording his constant struggle to understand himself and other people.

Those attempts to talk it out, or, perhaps, whisper it out, are back in force on the just as appropriately titled Wallflower. Lyrics about heartbreak and the difficulty of love are hardly unique, but you get the feeling Rakei means what he says more than most and his uneasiness is, as in life I imagine, like a wall around him. I come to his music now and find him preoccupied, lost in his own, very personal sadnesses.

It’s a feeling I’ve been having ever since the advance singles, like Sorceress started appearing. It is one of the more outgoing numbers on the record, luxuriating in the mysteriousness of somebody else’s seductiveness but even so, it doesn’t let itself soar to some of that ridiculous neo-soul excess that the most jaw-dropping moments of Cloak did.

The record proper only becomes more shy and retiring. It’s not like it’s a failure of the music though, like Rakei’s chops have deserted him. Rather it’s emotionally constrained, as if it’s his heart which has backed out. Just check out that other single, Nerve and the chorus “How can I love you when I can’t love myself.” I’ve found it quite frustrating:  the musical directions are all from that great Jordan Rakei playbook -for the most part it’s complex, jazzy rhythms- but nearly every song sounds like what should be the very quietest number on the record, not the whole record!

There are a few moments which explicitly grab your attention: Goodbyes takes that Rakei smoothness right over the top, the close-harmony of the chorus sounds like ELO. It’s impressive if, at the same time, a little scary. Clues takes a break from the jazz noodling for a dub-reggae holiday, which is nice, if a little lonesome in the rest of this 3am jazz club. Carnation’s chorus is just about the biggest on the record: haunted and haunting, the lyrics trouble and confuse: “Capsules must sink before they swim / Inform your next of kin!” It’s like Rakei is reaching out from a dream, trying to convey something urgent, but only leaving you troubled and unable to help.

I feel a bit that way about Wallflower as a whole. It’s chased about by the ghosts of Rakei’s inner turmoil. There are sketches and sketches within sketches as the clever little rhythms eddy around. I sense a deal of greatness in it all, but too often when I listen back, looking for it, those ghosts have whispered away again.

- Chris Cobcroft.

Album Details

Album Title: Wallflower
Artist: Jordan Rakei
Record Label: (Ninja Tune / Inertia)