Brittany Howard is a Southern rock & roll radical with a centuries-deep sense of history and some inspiring ideas about how to reshape it to fit our moment. As the lead singer and guitarist for the expansively retro-minded Alabama Shakes, she’s combined garage rock, soul, and psychedelia. In 2015, she convened the well-named punk-rock side project Thunderbitch, reimagining vintage New York punk as roadhouse stomp.
Now, she’s put the Shakes on hold to make her solo debut (though a couple of band members are on hand, as is co-producer Shawn Everett, who engineered the Shakes’ 2015 LP, Sound & Color). Still, it’s a total departure, her kaleidoscopic mix of decades’ worth of R&B, hip-hop, blues, and gospel, steeped in trippy laptop sonics and deeply personal political urgency. The album is titled after Howard’s older sister Jaime, who died of a rare form or eye cancer when Howard was eight years old.
“History Repeats” opens by establishing what will become a theme, sounding at once ancient and modern as it suggests a natural bridge between James Brown good-footin’, “Kiss”-era Prince, and Janelle Monáe’s sci-fi futurism. Howard’s voice takes falsetto flight like Smokey Robinson on the Sixties soul pastorale “Stay High,” and the somberly longing “Short and Sweet” recalls Nina Simone, just Howard and a soft guitar making longing feel intimate and infinite. Howard’s newest collaborators here are keyboardist Robert Glasper and drummer Nate Smith, worldly jazz musicians who help turn riffs like the cosmic boom-bap opus “13th Century Metal” into shape-shifting explorations.
The most potent moments interrogate Southern traditions in ways that go well beyond mere musical reinvention. “He Loves Me” is an anthem of lapsed religious devotion and personal freedom, sampling a black preacher who testifies about a friend who’s going to live a long life “ ’cause he ain’t worried about nothing,” as Howard’s guitar makes liberated noise and she praises her personal Jesus: “I know He still loves me/I know He still loves me when I’m smoking blunts.”
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And then there’s “Georgia,” a protest jam for our current right-wing apocalypse. Over a sinewy beat and a meditative organ, Howard sings a forlorn ode to a state that flagrantly depressed African American voter turnout in the 2018 election and recently passed one of the country’s most egregious anti-abortion laws. Howard is mindful of Ray Charles’ “Georgia on My Mind,” turning its wistful nostalgia into something much sadder. “I just want Georgia to notice me,” she sings, confronting oppression with faint hope. It’s a strikingly bold moment on a record that’s full of them.