That Salif Keita is one of the planet’s great vocalists is surely a given. What’s been a little more in dispute over the years is the qualitative longevity of much of the Malian’s solo work. Therefore it’s good to report that this might well be the first time that he’s managed to produce three consecutive albums that are well-rounded and free enough of prevailing studio fashion to have a chance of standing the test of time. La Différence is essentially “Salif goes acoustic” part three, picking up from - and largely employing the same core cast of sterling musicians as - 2002’s stunning Moffou and its follow-up M’bemba from 2005. So there’s plenty of the expected rolling ngoni and acoustic guitar rhythms to report, and those ever-present female backing singers who sweeten the sound with alluringly tight harmonies. And Salif of course, slightly throaty in places but still sounding majestic, impassioned, effortlessly affecting. Oud, balafon, cello and trumpet spring up occasionally to add colour to this well-worn template.
Despite all that, La Différence doesn’t quite punch its weight alongside its predecessors, due in some part to Patrice Renson’s occasionally over-zealous production – the string arrangements in particular tend to occupy spaces that often don’t need filling – and the serious nature of the material (the title track refers to the prejudices Salif has experienced as an albino, and ecological concerns are to the fore too). There’s also the burden of familiarity, reworked songs such as Folon and Papa defying their author to produce yet more new, fresh arrangements (the latter buckles under the weight of expectation and melodramatic portentousness). When it works, though, as it does more often than not, La Différence has enough soul to stand as one of Salif Keita’s more durable offerings.