D’Angelo And The Vanguard – ‘Black Messiah’

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Something this rich can only be the product of long spells of intense focus and hard work, yet it sounds as relaxed as an after-hours jam session

Since the turn of the century, when he reinvented soul music with his second album, 2000’s ‘Voodoo’, all we’ve heard from D’Angelo were rumours: drugs and drink, car crashes and rehab, but – a couple of controversial leaks aside – no new music. Yet suddenly, the comeback some feared might never happen is here: and it’s every bit as special as anyone who fell for ‘Voodoo’ dared hope.

Never mind the stories: Michael Eugene Archer has clearly spent the past 14 years perfecting his ability to make whatever kind of music crosses his mind. Jazz, pop, hip-hop, folk: they’re all just flavours he uses to season a sound that ventures beyond categories and classifications.

‘Sugah Daddy’, co-written by Q-Tip, is a rhythmic cousin of the latter’s ‘Vivrant Thing’ played on acoustic instruments. The lilting, sun-kissed ‘The Door’ wouldn’t have been out of place on a Simon and Garfunkel album, were it not for a bass drum that sounds like someone punching a wall. ‘1000 Deaths’ matches its battlefield narrative with a shock-and-awe mix of distortion, fevered bass pops and scratchily dissonant guitar.

Thematically it’s just as broad. There are a couple of sly, wry in-jokes while love songs predominate, but ‘Till It’s Done (Tutu)’ laments our failure to take care of the planet, and ‘The Charade’ offers a powerful post-Ferguson echo of strident civil-rights anthems from the ’60s and ’70s.

D’Angelo’s attention to detail is breathtaking. Every now and then during ‘Prayer’ the drums stutter, like a heartbeat that trips you up in a dream; ‘Ain’t That Easy’s multi-tracked vocals lazily slosh over a ticking riff and Pino Palladino’s metronomic bass. Something this rich can only be the product of long spells of intense focus and hard work, yet it sounds as relaxed as an after-hours jam session.

The good – no, the astonishing – news is that this constantly engrossing record repays a decade and a half’s faith and patience. D’Angelo has scuttled down the digital chimney with an early Christmas gift with long-lasting rewards: not just one of the best records of 2014, but one that will stay with you throughout next year, too.

Angus Batey