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Brittany Howard – What Now (Island Records)

Transcendental meditation is a well-being practice that aims to heighten awareness, reduce stress, elevate self development and provide one with a higher state of consciousness. Around six years ago Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard came across a place called Nashville Center for Alternative Therapies and has ever since started engaging in meditative techniques that help the 35-year-old heal from the hardships that have clung onto her psyche since childhood; including the devastating impact that the cancerous teenage death of her sister Jaime has had on the musician. Consequently, Howard’s previous solo effort Jaime was named after and is dedicated to her sibling. The regular meditation sessions and the mental epiphanies that have been recently been unleashed have inspired the atmosphere and lyrics of the Athens-native’s second LP What Now.

Bridging every track on What Now are sound bowls that transport the listener to one of Howard’s transcendental classes. This repeated motif also has another significant purpose; to cleanse the palette between Howard’s contrasting musical colours; whether it be varying the pace of the tracks (the slow and steady of ‘Patience’ vs the house beat of ‘Prove It To You’) and the differing moods we are bestowed upon – from frantic panic to soothing contemplation – or the candid lyrics that highlight Brittany Howard’s different emotional states. Draped in psychedelic clothing on the album’s sleeve, we as listeners could believe that we are taking on the meditative mantra with her.

Howard and her ex-wife Jesse Lafser divorced after the release of her debut and follow up What Now has love as its core, with the opening track ‘Earth Sign’ showing the American vocalist expressing nervous optimism that a new romance is around the corner: “There’s a love waiting for me I can feel. I can’t see. But will I know?”. Howard’s voice is unsurprisingly powerful but what makes the song twice as effective is the clean echoey production that makes it sound as if she is in the room performing at you, as well as the tactile description of her mind, body and soul all eagerly anticipating the next romantic encounter: “Between my skin and the air. Invisibly near. Every curl of my hair. Every pull of my breath / In every part, every call. In the wet of my eyes. In the wind of my chest.”

‘I Don’t’ and ‘To Be Still’ have a swaying 1950s doo-wop soul influence. The former uses high-pitched harmonious backing singers – with the sampling quality making them sound reminiscent of a track by Jungle – to dreamingly rephrase a proverb most known from The Shining “All work and no play makes me a sad one.” One of Brittany Howard’s recent realisations was that she wasn’t enjoying the spontaneity of life because she was working so hard to prevent herself from returning to the poverty-stricken state of her youth. On the latter Howard channels Michael Kiwanuka through her soft deep vocals and the track is What Now at its most spiritual. The chime of the gong rings behind words about being reincarnated as a flower: “You would grow me for one summer. You could plant me in the sun or in the shade.” When the second gong curtails the song, it feel as if the listener was in temporary hypnosis. It also acts as a restful moment in an album that has its drama.

The drama coming from tracks such as the Funk-rock title track ‘What Now’. A song that utilises Howard’s explosive vocals among buzzy guitars. As the singer gets more lyrically aggressive, the vocals erupt. Singing towards a former lover, she gains the confidence to act on her own previously-hesitant instinct to end the relationship. Progressing from “It’s painful, but I might as well say sorry,” in the first verse to “I Guess I’m sorry.” Then finally exclaiming in the outro: “I ain’t sorry.”  On the experimental rock ‘Red Flags’, Howard admits showing ignorance and denial in partnerships in aim to keep the amorous status quo: “I ran right through them red flags / To get more of your love. Dreaming, a way to keep from waking.” The track has a unique stuttering drum pattern that adds to the track’s haphazard nature, courtesy of Nate Smith – a drummer that also worked with Brittany Howard on Jaime.  

Another example of a collaborator that contributes greatly to the quality of What Now’s compositions is Chicago trumpeter Rod McGaha. His performance on the late-night-jazz ‘Samson’ above the disjointed drumming helps create Howard’s forlorn indecisive mindset: “I’m split in two, I don’t know what I wanna do. I’m split in two, should I stick with you?” Furthermore his contribution on the album’s finale ‘Every Color In Blue’, sounds like a chaotic bee pestering Howard as she undergoes an emotional panic attack: “It becomes me. Overcomes me. Dopamine leaves. Takes me. Eviscerates me. Too raw. Tuned out.”

Midway through the album is a 38 second interlude that features a sound clip of civil rights poet Maya Angelou reading out one of her poems (‘A Brave and Startling Truth’) at the 50th Anniversary United Nations ceremony in 1995. Tranquil xylophones resonate around to connect it to the album’s meditative environment. The end of the poem could double as a message to the world but also reflect Brittany Howard coming to terms with her own personal demons: “It is possible and imperative. That we discover a brave and startling truth. And when we come to it. To the day of peacemaking.”




God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.