You know when you’ve won four Grammys, performed for Obama and duetted at the express request of a Beatle and you’re thinking, “I need to shake it up”? Yeah, we can’t relate either, but thankfully – at only 30 – Brittany Howard did just that. And now we have her debut solo project outside of Alabama Shakes.
From the tantalisingly percussive ‘History Repeats’ to the melancholically synthesised ‘Run to Me’, ‘Jaime’ is an unflinching exploration of the very nooks and crannies we censor even from ourselves.
Largely improvised and formed chiefly of the incomplete tracks and lyrical scraps amassed on laptops and phones over the years, the genre-bending project marks a brave departure from her comfort zone. “I needed to shake it up,” Howard has said of the project. “And if you’re going to do that, you better go all out and make it worth it.”
But lovers of Alabama Shakes – fear not. Listening proves highly satisfying for fans of ‘Sound & Color’, yet the LP is packed with exciting new arrangements lent by collaborators Robert Glasper, Nate Smith and ‘Shakes bassist, Zac Cockrell.
Honest, intimate and revelatory lyrics document the awakening of one of the most celebrated front-women in music as she wrestles with her own experiences with identity, race, sexuality, insecurity, love, loss and more.
Armed with that unmistakably brand of blues-cum-jazz-cum-rock and disarming voice, she makes peace with her faults in gospel fashion on the affirmative ‘He Loves Me’. A battle which – once won – makes space for her tumultuous infatuation with ‘Georgia’. Asking, “Is it unnatural?… I wanna tell you that I love you” synthesised organ backs the declaration with more than a nod to her Deep South background and all its religious and political connotations.
In ‘Goat Head’, she retraces a confusing childhood spent enduring prejudice and hate against her mixed-race family. “What I wanna know is…Who slashed my dad's tyres and put a goat head in the back?” she asks rhetorically, as a queer, non-white woman who now knows better.
Refreshingly, Howard forgoes wrapping her truth in layers of ambiguous metaphor and lays it triumphantly on the table. With painfully candid lyrics like, “I can’t help the way I was born to be”, the record proves both deeply personal yet socially resonant.
The album’s principal love song (dedicated to her beloved father, K.J. Howard, who has a cameo in the track’s video) is the groove-inducing ‘Stay High’, which marries melodic harmonies with twinkly piano keys and an infectious, feel-good chorus.
The lullaby-like ‘Short but Sweet’ is a tenderly stripped back lament of a love doomed to die, clashed consecutively by the rousing and politically-charged oath to self-enlightenment, ‘13th Century Metal’. Triggered by the passing of Prince and the election of Trump, the song climaxes in a chaotic crescendo that mirrors all the “bad shit happening”.
‘Jaime’ is arguably Howard’s most important work to date spiritually, let alone critically. Named in memoriam of the beloved sister she lost to cancer when both were in their teens, the album is a sonic sucking of the poison from the wounds of life, and the regeneration of the artist thereafter.
Words: Mica Ramsey
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