Cello and piano augment the R&S artist's rhythmic UK sound.
The album's opening track, "Unblocked," sets the scene. Marrying instruments with tight production, a call and response occurs between the cello and the synths, as if they're speaking to one another. The next two tracks, "Water Rising" and "Creature Pt. 1," build and swell emotively, thanks largely to contributions from the cellist Zosia Jagodzinska and the vocalist Lola Empire. Manuel has worked with vocalists before, as with Shadowbox on his debut album, Seven Lies. On those occasions, though, the tracks often felt overly sentimental. The use of vocals here is generally much more considered. But on tracks such as "Sparrows," with Empire's choral solo, Manuel's sentimental streak overshadows the beauty of his piano playing. The track's first half is an emotional arrangement of twinkling percussion, horns and wordless vocals. When the keys finally come through, they arrive with the line, "I'll show you my scars, you'll show me the stars," which undermines the sincerity of the underlying message.
Vocals and instruments aside, you can sense why Portrait With Firewood is Manuel's most personal record to date. The album's tracks chronicle much of his musical journey. Manuel goes in hard with broken-beat techno on "Sex," which then softens halfway through with the inclusion of piano, cello and vocals. This sets things up nicely for the following track, "V," whose blend of howling strings and syncopated synths marries euphoric elements with the skittering rhythms of his last R&S record, 2017's "Showreel Pt. 2." "Showreel Pt. 3" explores an entirely new sound for the artist. It gradually swells into a fast-paced, gabber-esque track before pivoting into jungle, showing both his abilities as a producer and his ever-growing range. Portrait With Firewood shows the growth of Manuel's musical abilities. It's also an earnest reflection of himself.