It's Pretty OK
Solving the paradoxes of our time since 2016

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A Pretty OK Song: "Cold Little Heart" - Michael Kiwanuka

The sun has just set. The sky, no longer illuminated, slowly turns from bright oranges, reds, and purples into the familiar black of night as I ease into my right turn at exit 45 onto MA-128 N towards Gloucester, Massachusetts.

I'm headed to Salem, a town known more for its witch trials than its beautiful cobblestone streets and historic areas. To me, though, it's where my best friend Josh lives. Josh is one of my few friends still in the area, so visiting him has become a key ritual in my social life. But this isn't about Josh, it's about a profound song that started playing on that slight right.

It starts with a gentle warbling of strings and a few ivory chords, but with time, Michael Kiwanuka’s “Cold Little Heart” builds. For everyone's sake, we’ll link the radio edit, but during that drive, I heard the full nine-minute version, and you know what? You should really listen to the full version too.

The full version does a wonderful job setting the stage for the song’s themes via the instrumentation, which feels rare in modern pop music. It tees the vocal section up perfectly and makes the song feel like it comes full circle. For those of you sticking to the radio edit, here’s the abridged version of what you've missed: Choral vocals and chimes build as the electric guitar and drums enter the fray. The guitar plays the main melody, taking the place of the vocalist, and things hit a whole additional climax before the part of the track preserved in the radio edit even begins.

The first things you hear in the radio edit are the syncopated drums and choral voices. The snare and hi-hat hits are infectious. Then Kiwanuka’s voice rings in crystal clear, with just a bit of reverb for depth. He has this incredibly soulful voice, and when he really belts a note, he holds it just long enough to give the end a bit of raspy dirt—it really helps evoke that soulful feeling.

Despite what you miss out on in the radio edit, you still get a good blend of the instrumental mix that makes the full version so great. The choral backing vocals add to the soulful feel of the track, and the guitar intertwines with Kiwanuka’s voice for the climactic moments. And everything is incredibly well balanced; no one sound drowns out the subtle supporting pieces.

Back to why that drive matters. During my drive to Salem that night, something in me started to shift, so it's fitting that “Cold Little Heart” came on. I set off to Massachusetts to accomplish something for myself, but so far I've been avoiding difficult decisions and hard choices. “Cold Little Heart” is about a relationship that is failing while the singer sits on the sideline feeling like he doesn’t have the willpower to try to keep it going.

There are more than a couple times lately where that’s been a familiar feeling, like I’m not even bothering to try and am slowly losing because of it. But maybe Michael Kiwanuka was just the spark I needed to turn things around and finally make some progress. “Cold Little Heart” really hit home for me when I most needed a push in the right direction, and maybe (especially if you listen to the full nine-minute version) it can do the same for you.

Until next week.

-Ian Wood