Brittany Howard has always had ambition to be known as more than just a vintage soul singer, as proven by the second Alabama Shakes album and her alter ego Thunderbitch. Her new solo album, Jaime, is named after her sister who died in childhood and takes musical inspiration from wildly diverse genres and styles. Jaime is a personal odyssey of discovery where in an attempt to deconstruct her past, musically and personally, she has created something thrillingly present.
Alabama Shakes are now on ‘indefinite hiatus’, a fact which I know many people will be disappointed about, myself included and it’s worth pointing out before we begin that if you’re a diehard fan of the first Alabama Shakes album and its epic Americana rock sound then this album may be somewhat disorientating at first listen – disorientating in a good way. I still think there’s much in here for fans of the genre to savour but Howard won’t be shackled to anyone’s ideas of what she should be singing or writing. I am delighted by the universal critical acclaim the album has received, and hope that old fans can take the time to really listen and appreciate the depth and scope of this record.
The record begins with the funky History Repeats, full of cool distorted vocals that mesh together with the offbeat music which sounds like an experimental Prince track. He Loves Me is one of the most immediate songs on the album, and it considers her personal faith and relationship with God. The song is interspersed with a sermon on anxiety by pastor Terry K Anderson. It’s a simple idea in a way, with the repeated ‘he loves me/he doesn’t judge me’ idea of Christianity, but from a queer woman the message takes on new significance and power.
On ‘Georgia’ she steps into the shoes of a teenager on the cusp of understanding their blossoming sexuality, singing of the infatuation with a girl. The song loops the line ‘I just want Georgia to notice me’ in a yearning and heartfelt declaration of unrequited longing. By the end of the album her growth is complete as she finds love and honours her partner on the song Presence.
Stay High is probably the most similar song to her previous band, with its vintage seventies soul vibe. I just love how the piano is sprinkled throughout and the way she uses every aspect of her voice to almost caress the notes. It’s just a sublime vocal performance and one of the best songs of the year.
Tomorrow is a song in three parts, and one she’s called ‘the advanced listener’s track’. If you pass the test then you’ll be rewarded with a song that is full of hope, despite everything. Musically Short and Sweet is the most simple, just a guitar and her voice. The power of her instrument is Nina Simone levels of awe-inspiring. She can do vintage style songs like this with ease, so to just have one moment in the middle of the record is an acknowledgment of her core strength and a reminder that she can do so much more – like modern rnb on Baby and alternative eighties power ballads on Run to Me.
The only song that Brittany didn’t write solo was 13th Century Metal, which is a spoken word track over music improvised by her collaborator on the album Robert Glasper. It’s a prayer, a sermon, a statement of peace, love and unity. We are all brothers and sisters. The jazz influences on the record might be subtle at times but you can feel that she is open to pushing the traditions of many genres through her music, and credit must go to her producer Shawn Everett who helped Kacey do something equally adventurous on Golden Hour.
On Goat Head Howard details the shocking racism her interracial family faced and explores the impact on her own understanding of identity. Such a dehumanising attack haunted her and the brutal story is chilling in juxtaposition with the soft music.
Brittany has spoken of how her sister Jaime inspired her creativity – taught her how to play piano, write songs and it was her guitar she first picked up after she died. For some people awful childhood experiences can light a creative fire within, a wish to explore the darkness and find answers to those unspeakable empty spaces that have been left behind. The songs on Jamie are powerful weapons against loss and trauma – a testament to the power of hope, love and creativity.