The cover of Van Hunt's self-titled debut has a picture of our man's face framed by psychedelic squiggles and a comic-book speech balloon announcing his name. Kinda funny when you think about it, seeing as how the hyped neo-soul movement of the past few years has graced us with a lot of acts that are cartoon carbons of the real deal. Musiq as Stevie Wonder? More like Rudy from Fat Albert. Granted, the wedding of 21st-century studio glaze to '70s songwriting sophistication has birthed some amazing albums by D'Angelo, Raphael Saadiq and Anthony Hamilton -- though ironically, neo-soul's only true magnum opus so far has been Cody ChestnuTT's scuffed-up, stripped-down Headphone Masterpiece.
Scratch that. Make that two magnum opuses.
According to Van Hunt, he was raised by a dad who painted, pimped and faked being crazy just to get committed to an asylum and thus get out of working in a factory. True or false, Hunt knows the power of good mythmaking; hardship and weirdness wriggle out of the songs on his first disc like dark dreams out of a fevered brain. Even the sunny softness of the ballads "What Can I Say" and "Precious" serve to bring out the quirky funk in tracks such as "Down Here in Hell (With You)," in which Hunt sweetly exhales, "I really love it when we make mistakes / Because once again it gives me a reason to complain / Love without pain / Would leave me wondering why I stay." Like Curtis Mayfield's, his most syrupy love songs are Trojan horses hiding whole arsenals of spite, regret and depression. Besides such sweeping emotional panoramas, Hunt's musical vision casts a wide-angle lens on the bloodline of soul music, zooming in occasionally on Marvin Gaye or Prince without becoming fixed on either.
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