While sometimes not an easy listen, the sometime Alabama Shakes singer’s latest is certainly a thrilling and restless journey
It’s been 15 years since we were introduced to the powerful voice of Brittany Howard, as lead singer of blues-rockers Alabama Shakes. They lasted just two albums which, if Howard’s solo career is anything to go by, wasn’t that much of a surprise – as this record and her debut Jaimie shows, she’s the sort of artist who may feel a bit too constrained by a band.
For What Now is an aptly named record – an album that doesn’t so much skip across genres as totally flatten them. It’s just 38 minutes long, but feels like a deep exploration of psychedelia, soul, funk and rock with Howard’s extraordinarily expressive vocals always taking centre stage.
Earth Sign kicks off the album off in a typically obtuse way – an almost jazzy, pastoral setting, with a choir of multi-tracked Howards giving the track a gospel tinge, which becomes a bigger and bigger anthem as the song develops. It’s a bit of an outlier for what’s to come, but it’s one hell of a scene-setter.
Elsewhere, Howard makes it clear that she’s come to party. The ghost of Prince hangs heavy over What Now – the exhilaratingly funky Power To Undo could almost be the Purple One come back to life, a glorious disco number embroidered by some absolutely filthy guitar licks. There’s tempo changes, a naggingly catchy chorus and it’s all over in less than three minutes.
Prove It To You is another track that sounds completely at home on the dancefloor, a shimmering, urgent track that has the same yearning quality as Roger Sanchez‘s Another Chance, while the title track builds on the restless quality that seems to be stamped all over the album, a fuzzy guitar riff serving as a cathartic pay-off to an ex-lover: “I don’t have love to give you more/You’re fucking up my energy, I told the truth so set me free”.
Another Day is another unapologetic party anthem, with Howard proclaiming “I am having the time of my life” over a percussion-rammed melody that Young Fathers would be proud of. She’s equally adapt at the more laid-back moments too – I Don’t is like a throwback to the ’70s lounge soul of the likes of The Chi-Lites, while Samson has a gorgeously muted Miles Davis-style trumpet weaving its way through it.
In other hands, What Now could easily have become a bit of a confused mess – sometimes it feels like there’s almost too many ideas packed into its comparatively brief running time. Yet Howard and producer Shawn Everett keep a tight rein on the album’s shifting moods – so a switch from the delirious funk of Power To Undo to the reflective, Radiohead-esque closer Every Color In Blue doesn’t feel as jarring as it would in other hands.
What Now is sometimes not an easy listen, but it’s certainly a thrilling and restless journey. Looking at how Howard has evolved from her early days with Alabama Shakes, a more appropriate title for this collection could have been What Next – as whatever does come next is likely to be intriguing.