Pitchfork Review of ‘Jaime’: 8.6
The exceptional solo debut from the Alabama Shakes singer-songwriter is a thrilling opus that pushes the boundaries of voice, sound, and soul to new extremes.
Brittany Howard tends to get a little restless when things get too comfortable. Just when she and her band Alabama Shakes were branded as innocuous roots-rock revivalists after their 2012 debut, Boys & Girls, she started pushing their retro-soul sound to its outer reaches and beyond. Sound & Color, from 2015, sprawled out into blues and funk and psychedelia, and won three Grammys doing it. Amid the Shakes’ growing popularity, Howard deviated from the course. In 2018, emotionally spent, she called a meeting of her Shakes bandmates to announce that she’d be stepping away for a bit after a spell of writer’s block; she didn’t know what she’d be doing next, but she’d be doing it on her own. In retreating from Alabama Shakes, Brittany Howard found herself on a voyage of self-discovery.
From that process comes her solo debut, Jaime, which is full of that same restless energy. Unlike her work with her bands—including the amped-up rock group Thunderbitch and the alt-country outfit Bermuda Triangle—it speaks solely to the life she’s led, the love and hatred she’s faced, and the way they’ve shaped her worldview. Jaime is a daring turn in just about every way imaginable: bolder, freakier, riskier, more experimental, not just deeply personal but cuttingly political, sometimes quietly tender, sometimes brutally direct. Working in a greenhouse in Topanga Canyon, she mined her complicated personal history, first writing out a memoir of her life up until the founding of Alabama Shakes, then transposing it to songwriting. Howard has said that she needed to be in full control to make this record, and it’s easy to see why: It is the kind of soul-baring opus that first requires soul-searching.
The album is named after Howard’s sister, who died at 13 after being diagnosed with a rare form of eye cancer. It was Jaime who first taught Brittany to write a song, and now she’s writing her most unyielding and vulnerable ones, songs about coming to terms with personal identity, guarded secrets, spiritual and social and sexual awakenings, deep-rooted family traumas. Though Howard feels united with her sister’s spirit, the album isn’t about Jaime. Instead, it is a boundless study of inner character, someone so used to speaking for others—the Shakes as a unit, the struggling masses on songs like “Hold On”—finally taking the opportunity to speak for herself.
Jaime is the sound of Howard coming up for air, getting to know herself better, coming to terms with her place in the world, and then proudly standing in that truth. The songs may be rooted in the same vintage soul that powers Alabama Shakes, but they reach for greater heights and greater depths: convention-defying funkadelia, throwback rap breakbeats, streaking synth-rock, the tense jazz behind D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, the eclectic vocal power of Prince. As Howard breaks all the rules, some songs super busy, others bare, she finds her way home.
The mastery of Jaime is balancing the beauty of Southern identity and culture with what Howard has referred to as “all the ugly things about the past,” both personally and historically. Howard is a queer, mixed-race woman, born to a black father and white mother in the same city as the founder of neo-Nazi message board Stormfront and a former Grand Wizard in the Klan. It’d be easiest to condemn the place itself outright, but it’s still her home. The saying goes: “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it,” and on “History Repeats,” she echoes that sentiment: “We defeat ourselves.” In studying her own past, she finds reasons to keep fighting for change.
“I am dedicated to oppose those whose will is to divide us and who are determined to keep us in the dark ages of fear,” Howard chants on “13th Century Metal,” amid a cacophonous, white-knuckle, one-take jam session. The song is full of positive affirmations, and though she reveals herself to be as weary as the rest of us, she won’t stop: “I don’t know about you/But I’m tired of this bullshit/And I wanna try/To do the best that I can.” Amid the noise and chaos, Howard shows that love can be the most radical tool of resistance.
Even the love songs on Jaime feel like powerful political acts; not just because they revolve around queer love, but because it feels defiant to choose to love and be loved when you’re surrounded by hate. The sweetly skittish “Georgia,” sung with a flushed breathlessness, is written from the perspective of a young girl with a harmless crush on an older girl. The bluesy “Stay High” is about wanting to live in a single moment with a lover forever; the minimalist “Short and Sweet” is about knowing that time is finite, and savoring it. On the former, she lets her voice drift weightlessly skyward; on the latter, her words flit between acoustic strums, like the wick of a candle in an evening breeze. The only thing centering this album is Howard’s remarkable voice, a miraculous instrument of subtlety and power.
Howard uses this versatility to ask: Why is all this hate and bigotry still happening? The fidgety piano-masher “Goat Head” poses rhetorical questions about a hate crime committed against her father when she was a baby. The story, later recounted to Howard by her mother, lifted the veil on a childhood filled with racism. The song is an unflinching vignette illustrating life as a mixed family among an unforgiving community. “My mama was brave/To take me outside/’Cause mama is white/And daddy is black/When I first got made/Guess I made these folks mad,” she howls. Many of those “folks” that were mad then are still mad today, and “Tomorrow” wonders aloud what must happen to enact change now: “We always talk about tomorrow/But now that we’re here/Without lifting a finger/How do you feel?” Her writing is always collected, naked in the way it presents the truth.
Howard wrote and composed all of the music on Jaime, which manages to sound both far-reaching and solitary. She played all the assorted, mesmerizing guitar parts, and enlisted Shakes bassist Zac Cockrell, jazz pianist extraordinaire Robert Glasper, keyboardist Dan Horton, and drummer Nate Smith to play sessions with her. With these highly capable ringers driving the arrangements, Howard pushes the boundaries of sound and space in search of fulfillment and decency. In a world that requires so much fixing, the music works effortlessly. Armed with a deeper understanding of self, Jaime becomes her gospel of empathy. “I promise…to be wary of who I give my energy to. Because it is needed for a greater cause,” she vows on “13th Century Metal.” “And that cause is to spread the enlightenment of love, compassion, and humanity to those who are not touched by its light.”
Buy: Rough Trade