Brittany Howard’s ‘Jamie” is #1 on NPR’s Best Albums of 2019
Black radicalism, the philosopher Fred Moten has written, cannot be understood outside the context of its origins in oppression; as a force of rebirth, it also always breaks out of that context. The same, Moten says, is true of black music – a broken circle, rooted and free, it demands a new way of listening. The first solo album by Alabama Shakes front woman Brittany Howard inspires such heady thoughts.
Sinking her fingers into the dirt of her own life story as a black biracial queer woman born in the Deep South, now living far West of that beloved, problematic home, Howard wrote a set of songs that invoke Moten’s image of the groove as a broken circle. These are songs that draw the ear into their slow rhythms, only to disrupt and rearrange themselves; that build melodies like vines growing, turning and knotting into loops, getting tangled as they move toward sun. They tell stories of desire with names like “Stay High,” unorthodox faith through declarations like “He Loves Me” and family history by facing painful memories (in “Goat Head,” the stench of racism permeates). Yet following her own perspective, Howard turns confession on its head. To realize her songs’ deceptively plainspoken complexity, Howard and producer Shawn Everett brought together jazz disruptors Nate Smith on drums and Robert Glasper on keys, alongside her old bandmate and musical anchor, bassist Zac Cockrell. They took chances. They got psychedelic, locked into heavy funk, slid into classic R&B and then cleared space for Howard to be lonely, like the blues chanteuse she also can be. This album is a radical act of self-claiming, one that does more than reintroduce a great 21st Century voice. It turns a broken circle into an open road. —Ann Powers