Not Waving, But Drowning is a love letter from Loyle Carner to his family, friends, girlfriend, and life itself. This review, in turn, is a love letter to that album. Anchored in vulnerability and bristling with character, this is a matured Carner; though there are still elements of uncertainty and being lost, it is unwaveringly sincere and self-assured in a manner that sets it apart from debut album, Yesterday’s Gone.
For someone who saw such wide-scale success following his last album, it would make sense for a follow-up to meditate on that triumph and change. Though it touches on this, it is not in the way you would expect; it navigates changing friendships and the divide breached by new heights of success, particularly on ‘Krispy’, a call to rectify things with best friend, Rebel Kleff. This is undoubtedly one of the most poignant moments on the album, intensified by the trumpet-driven instrumentation; the absence of words in this segment of the song holds more weight than any lyrics could.
Fundamentally, though, it is an album grounded in the everyday; with snippets of laughter celebrating an England victory in the World Cup on ‘It’s Coming Home?’, to heartfelt conversations with a taxi driver at the end of ‘Ice Water’, it is rooted in authenticity and sentimentalism. An abundance of Carner’s multitalented friends make appearances on the album. Long-time collaborator Tom Misch’s efforts on ‘Angel’ prove again that the two really are a dream team, and ‘Desoleil (Brilliant Corners)’ with Sampha marks a return back to some of Carner’s older stuff; the combination of Sampha’s plaintive vocals and what is perhaps some of Carner’s slickest rapping yet is golden.
Carner’s profound lyricism takes centre stage, proving again that above all else, he is a wordsmith with a talent to rival some of the greats. Even when some of the tracks seem to fall flat, they are lifted immensely by the deeply moving nature of his lyrics. Weaving poetry and hip-hop seamlessly, the inclusion of Stevie Smith, the writer of the poem from which the album takes its name, explaining the story behind the poem is one of the most arrestingly tender moments on the album.
Not Waving, But Drowning is bookended by poems to and from Carner’s mum, which is an utter delight. ‘Dear Ben’ is the most heart-rending, enthralling moment of the album; the love Jean Coyle-Larner has for her “scribble of a boy” is patent and enough to move you to tears. Raw and unfiltered, this is exactly what makes Loyle Carner so special; he does not shy away from documenting intimate moments or exhibiting feelings that often go unspoken. His effervescent personality shines through the most anthemic, determined numbers as well as the more introspective, tentative times as he dives deeper than he has before.
The end of ‘Sail Away Freestyle’ instructs that “all you’ve got to do is be a good kid and make some fucking good music”: this is exactly what Loyle Carner is doing on Not Waving, But Drowning. There is no doubt about it; he is not drowning at all, rather staying comfortably afloat as I imagine he will for a long time.