Album Review: Jimmy Cliff - Refugees
by Steve Topple
The legendary Jimmy Cliff’s new album may surprise some Reggae fans. But it’s no surprise really. Because it’s a stunning record filled with musical prowess and lyrical humanity – along with Cliff himself at the top of his vocal game.
Refugees, released via Sunpower Productions NY and UMG Recordings, is a departure from his last full release, 2012’s Rebirth. This record is no Reggae release and is undoubtedly heavily influenced by classic Soul and Rock of the 60s and 70s, some 80s ElectroPop/Synthwave – as well as on occasion more modern styles, too. Also, Cliff partnered with the UN Refugee Agency (the UNHCR) for the record, creating a webpage showing how people can support refugees. It is undoubtedly a conscious release, and also one of sheer quality – with the production, engineering and mastering being slick. But it’s the song writing, lyrics and Cliff’s performances which really shine.
The album opens with Money Love. It’s a curious creation – drawing in elements of Reggae (the skanking electric guitar), Africa (pattering djembe-style drums), Funky Soul (the quivering electric organ) and rapid-fire hi-hats. The inclusion of a sax is lovely, and it’s fresh, inventive and pleasing, and opens the album well.
Here I Am feels like a Reggae-hybrid track. It combines those essentials like a skanking guitar, strutting horns and soulful backing vocals. But the influences kind-of end there – as the rest of the arrangement feels distinctly 70s throwback Rock. You’re almost reminded of Fleetwood Mac in the way those complex Rock guitars sound and feel Blues and the incessant drums move the gorgeous chord progressions along. There’s also some wonderful engineering and mastering on this to give it an analogue (vinyl) feeling of warmth and aural imperfection – almost 'as live'. It's glorious and well-executed work.
Refugees (Rap Version) featuring an engaging Wyclef Jean brings in some 90s, Neo Soul (that combination of Funky Soul-influenced Hip Hop and RnB sensibilities) and merges it with African overtones. Security sets the album on a securer Reggae path – featuring many of the authentic musical devices we'd expect: keys on a bubble rhythm, a guitar skanking and some nice backing vocals. But the lack of a one drop, the additional percussion and rapidly-moving bass move the track forward briskly and overall, it's pleasing. Then, One Song lulls the listener into a false sense of security with its opening: a distinctly Soul-Rock introduction, with haunting pianos and the drums slowly entering. But the track then slips into Reggae but with some interesting breaks and bridges - and is again pleasing.
My Love Song is almost light-touch Dancehall-meets-Afrobeats; not AfroDancehall, as the beat is a traditional 'oneeeeee-twooo-and' x2' clave. That Dancehall element is superseded by more African ones: lilting, chord-based guitars, some shrill horns matching the clave and pattering drums. There are also some great, throwback synths and effects including a wah-wah'd guitar and two high-register, synth horns running around. Sterling work.
Moving On is traditional African fayre: the gorgeous chimes open the track before the incessant skin drums on that 'one-and-[two]' rhythm permeate proceedings. A delicate flute-like instrument is juxtaposed by a haunting, 80s Synthwave-style synth horn and the chord arrangements are beautiful. It's a gorgeous and evocative arrangement – and the sudden, anthemic bridge is a delight.
We Want Justice featuring Jamaican vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Dwight Richards returns to Reggae but with a different feel to Security. Then, Racism featuring his daughter Lilty Cliff moves Refugees back to the Motherland, while meeting something Soul. A gorgeously delicate and soulful electric organ combines with string to create a stirring countermelody – while the African influences are still clear across the drums. A rapid-fire bridge hones in on the Soul; Lilty is soulfully on-point, and the whole thing is stirring and moving.
Bridges is in that classic, unfussy 'standard' format: anthemic, with Cliff effortlessly moving his voice into a high tenor, it draws heavily on that Gospel-influenced Soul sound of the 70s. The melodic piano line is moving, and its stark arrangement, with just a bass and electric organ to accompany it, works brilliantly. The sudden inclusion of a string section is wonderful as is the crescendo-laden bridge; the backing vocals perfectly executed and overall, it feels like a classic instantly - and is perhaps one of Refugees’ strongest tracks.
Punus again returns to that Dancehall-meets-Afrobeats sound. Then, Happy Day is more African-influenced vibes but with clearer Reggae tones.
The album concludes with Refugees (Dance Version) featuring Jean and does what seems on paper the unthinkable: putting Cliff firmly in Amapiano/AfroHouse territory (yes, you read that right). The dominant, resonant four-to-the-floor kick oozes over the track, while the African drum arrangement complements the Soulful elements of the track perfectly. Storming.
Lyrically, Refugees is politically and socially charged (as expected). There are exceptions to this, like the declaration of love on Here I Am and the ballad about the power of music, One Song. Moving On is also a stand-out – a direct message to his detractors who seemingly did not want this album, with its move away from straight Reggae, produced.
Otherwise, Cliff has honed-in on the systemic racism, xenophobia and discrimination that exists around people fleeing war, persecution and economic turmoil – but also that which is meted-out against non-refugees, too. The title track is of course a stand-out, made all the more powerful by the inclusion of Jean, his backstory and that of the name-sake of his former group. Security, with its message against poverty, is like his classic The Harder They Come: a major, upbeat musical key versus serious lyrics. We Want Justice is a direct rallying cry for the title’s noun across society and emancipation, while Racism delivers a powerful yet thoughtful narrative about how it is detrimental to us all.
Vocally, Cliff is still a powerful artist to be reckoned with. Across Refugees, he shows his ability to sit comfortably in all the styles and genres featured, and does it with ease. My Love Song shows this well – as he is forthright, winding and effervescent. Across Punus he displays his vocal dexterity, using staccato notes aplenty as well as varying embouchure across complex lyrics. Happy Day is down the lower-end of his register which is warm and rich.
But Cliff is at his most powerful across Bridges. His performance is remarkable, sounding like he could have recorded it in his youth. It is undeniably forthright, working in the high-end of his tenor voice (within a range many artists would need to go into a falsetto to manage). But within this, Cliff has included dynamic light and shade – often toning his voice down to a delicate whisper before rising up once again. His breath control is impressive across the elongated notes on the chorus and his interpretation is filled with emotion and moving attention to detail. It is undeniably the strongest track on the album and perhaps a defining moment for Cliff in recent years – channelling the same, mesmerising artistry witnessed on Many Rivers To Cross.
Refugees is a remarkable body of work from Cliff. It’s probably caused a stir in some Reggae quarters for, well – not being Reggae. But Cliff never has been exclusively this – and the album is all the better for it. It waxes and wanes, peaks and troughs across musical boundaries – perfectly encapsulating the essence of the subject matter. Gorgeous, moving and infinitely listenable, it stands as a testament not only to Cliff’s artistry but also his humanity. Glorious.
Jimmy Cliff - Refugees
DIGITAL RELEASE [Sunpower Productions]
Release date: 08/12/2022
01. Money Love
02. Here I Am
03. Refugees (Rap Version) feat. Wyclef Jean
05. One Song
06. My Love Song
07. Moving On
08. We Want Justice feat. Dwight Richards
09. Racism feat. Lilty Cliff
12. Happy Day
13. Refugees (Dance Version) feat. Wyclef Jean