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Our music editor, Taylor Donoughue-Smith, looks at the debut solo album by Alabama Shakes frontwoman Brittany Howard.
The truly important records leave a lasting mark in some way. They often spark the beginning of a musical moment or strike a chord during a time of our lives that is impossible to ignore. What they all have in common is that they have a powerful voice; something to say that resonates on a deeper level. Brittany Howard’s Jaime released back in September, is one of those albums. Throughout eleven tracks, the frontwoman of blues-rock band Alabama Shakes embraces the principle that the personal is political to not only respond to the rising nationalistic, populist sentiments that have risen over the past decade. Here, however, to examine her upbringing and experiences as a mixed-race, queer woman raised in Alabama.
The album begins with History Repeats, a title which sets the tone for the sort of deep contemplation that takes place across the album. The track starts with a marching band-esque drum pattern, imbuing the song and the album with a sense of urgency. This gives way to a light and bluesy guitar riff, much reminiscent of the sort of thing you’d hear on Alabama Shakes’ sophomore release Sound & Colour. Howard wastes no time in delving into the subject matter, stating that ‘I just don’t want to be back in this place again’. Her lyricism here is incredibly forward and direct; it lends itself incredibly well to tackling the seeming inevitability of humans to disappoint in their actions, a sentiment that seems very pertinent in the era of populism. It’s an eclectic track and incredibly groovy; the production results in a compressed sound that feels very dense. This sometimes verges on a sort of sensory overload as she rattles home the declaration that ‘History repeats and we defeat ourselves’ over and over towards the end of the song, but it’s well-executed. Yet the song’s pure brilliance – and it’s something you find across the album – is that it strikes a balance between the personal and the political spot on. It could as quickly be about an event in Howard’s own life as it is a broader comment, something she has noted herself in interviews promoting the album.
This is an original album; sonically, she is not afraid to experiment, branching out from the heavily soul-influenced of sounds Alabama Shakes are known for and delving into various styles. On the completely off-kilter 13th Century Metal, she veers into industrial rock, with its strange keys and discordant rhythm serving as the basis for perhaps the ideological centrepiece of the album. ‘I promise to think before I speak/ To be wary of who I give my energy to/ Because it is needed for a greater cause/ Greater than my pride/And that cause is to spread the enlightenment of love, compassion and humanity,’ she says. It is on this track that the contemplation of her values, her experiences and upbringing coalesce and find a vehicle. She speaks of her desire to ‘oppose those whose will is to divide us/ And who are determined to keep us in the dark ages of fear,’ and there is not one moment where this sermon seems forced. Born out of a deeply personal examination of her personhood, this seems like a fully-realised, profound mission statement.
Across this album, Howard’s passion and sincerity shines through. Sweet and Short, a lovely acoustic track, brought me close to tears on first listen, such is the intimacy of the song and features some of her most vulnerable vocals. Discussing a burgeoning relationship, her voice, hushed at the beginning, rises to an exclamation as she laments how ‘time is going to kill it’. Again, the bluntness and simplicity of her lyrics strips bare any pretense; this is the real Brittany, vulnerable, yet empowered. Nowhere is this more evident than the other centrepiece of the album, Goat Head, a stark depiction of the discrimination she was exposed to growing up with a black father and a white mother in Alabama. The song starts off almost akin to a bed-time story, with simplistic lyrics: ‘See, tomatoes are green/ And cotton is white/ My heroes are black/ So why God got blue eyes?’. Soon, however, this abstraction comes to end with Howard asking ‘Who slashed my dad’s tires and put a goat head in the back?’. There’s real anger here; it’s an incredibly uncomfortable moment on the album and one that forces the listener to interact head-on with the realities of racism as opposed to seeing it as some abstract harm.
Yet despite this, Howard refuses to cower to this abhorrent act, embracing with pride the mixed-race heritage she grapples with in Goat Head (‘but I’m that, Nah, Nah, I’m this, right? I’m one drop of three-fifths, right?), telling the subject of the subsequent song Presence that ‘you make me feel so black and alive’. It’s a real act of hope and defiance against the people ‘whose will is to divide us’ she talks about in 13th Century Metal and another act of self-assuredness from an artist discovering who she is. Songs such as Georgia, with its portrayal of same-sex love, further this feeling that the only response to hate is to defy and carry on anyway.
The critical success of this album lies in a few parts. First, the music itself. These are incredibly well-crafted songs full of feeling. When I first heard Stay High, I could not stop smiling. It’s such a lovely, joyous song.
Secondly, her writing is so astute and intensely observational. It all seems to be motivated by a deep desire to express herself first and foremost. This ability to completely personalise broader social trends and waves without seeming trite ought to be commended. Is this a political album? Yes. But first and foremost, it’s deeply personal, almost spiritual at times. It spans so much of her somebodies, a concept introduced in a sample used in the track He Loves Me, which focuses on her relationship with her faith.
It’s easy to see this album as disjointed and fragmented; a collection of eleven songs rather than a record, but I can’t help but feel this couldn’t have been made any other way. It’s a self-portrait of one woman discovering who she is, embracing it and using her newfound perception of herself to impart her wisdom. I am astounded by the scope and ambition on display here. There isn’t an album like it this year, perhaps even this decade. Jaime stands on its own, an opus of self-discovery, doubt, anger, defiance, love and hope.