Now 36, Rory “Rag ‘n’ Bone Man” Graham had a long run-up to success, but when it finally came, his life began to move at warp speed. In February 2017, he won two Brit Awards less than a fortnight after his debut album was released. That album, Human, was the fastest-selling debut by a male artist in 10 years, became a huge hit across Europe and went four times platinum here. In the following two years, he had a son, got married to and split from his long-term partner.
That’s a lot of life experience to fit into a follow-up collection, and surely a lot of pressure to stick with the sonic formula that brought him fame. On that first album, 6’ 5” Graham came across as a kind of digitised lumberjack of the future, mixing mountainous bellowed vocals with polished electronic production. Like a grizzled cousin of Moby’s mixing of ancient spirituals and dance music on his Play album, it was a modern take on the blues that was a fine fit for arena gigging.
So it’s surprising to hear him describing Life by Misadventure as “a lesson in restraint”, but that’s exactly what it is. To make it, he avoided pop co-writers and travelled to Nashville to work with more traditional collaborators including Natalie Hemby, who has written songs for Kacey Musgraves and Miranda Lambert, and Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin, who wrote the Bonnie Raitt classic I Can’t Make You Love Me. Acoustic guitar is the dominant instrument, followed by understated piano, and for the most part Graham keeps his mighty voice off its flamethrower setting in favour of something more sad and weary.
It’s a brave move, especially as this is also surely an attempt to convert the music market that so far hasn’t fallen for him: America. Anywhere Away From Here ought to grab their attention as a duet with Pink, but it never goes for the overegging you might expect and stays a quiet, charming piano ballad.
He does ramp up the passion in places, such as on Talking to Myself, whose restless drums hint at a noisy climax that does eventually arrive, and both Crossfire and All You Ever Wanted, which motor along like an air-punching Springsteen. But songs such as Old Habits and Breath in Me hold back and are better for it. This time it’s the quality of the songwriting, more than that voice, that is most conspicuous.