Known for her powerful and soulful voice, Brittany Howard — the lead singer and guitarist of the highly celebrated, Grammy Award-winning band Alabama Shakes — has decided to step away from the group. This should come as no surprise, though, to fans of the talented, young artist, who is the source of much of the band’s unique sound.
Like many artists who break away from their collectives, Howard has a story to tell that she could not express through the group’s music. However, on her debut LP, “Jaime,” the musician tells a personal tale about her complex relationship with her Southern roots.
Howard named the album after her late sister, who first taught her to play piano, read poetry and who Howard says “shape[d] [her] as a human being.” The record plays with genre in ways that are reminiscent of the 2015 Alabama Shakes album, “Sound & Color.” Perhaps most evident on her single “Stay High,” the similar musicality of Howard’s solo career and previous work can be explained by the fact that her fellow band members played the instruments for the record. That said, “Jaime” also has a voice that is very specific to Howard herself.
Of the few love songs on the album, “Georgia” is the sharpest. Here, like other moments on the album, Howard uses lyrical repetition to imbue words with heavier meaning. The hook is a single line — “I just want Georgia to notice me” — which seems to grow more pained as the track continues. The ending of the song demonstrates what Howard was able to do on this album that she could not with the Shakes, as she uncharacteristically leans on keyboard and synthesized sounds and concludes the track with a final euphoric flourish of instrumentation.
Throughout the record, Howard contemplates feelings of longing, anger, frustration, love and jubilance. The album is an ode to her Alabama upbringing as seen through the eyes of a mixed-race, queer woman. It speaks to how place has shaped her into the person she is now and has provided her with solace in community, while also being a source of pain and confusion.
On the album, Howard situates herself within a larger tradition, both musically and spiritually.
The record was produced after Howard took a cross-country journey from Nashville to Topanga, California. “Jaime” opens with “History Repeats.” The ironic and upbeat groove is a fitting introduction and summation of Howard’s feelings throughout the album; as she sings jazzily and nonchalantly, “I don’t wanna go back here again,” Howard foreshadows exactly what she is about to do. On this LP, she goes back physically and metaphorically to the place where she grew up.
In a witty and understated turn during the chorus of the song, Howard then likens her return to something more collective and inevitable within our culture: “History repeats and we defeat ourselves / Come on everybody, one more time again.” Just as Howard feels on this album that she does not have a choice but to go back to where she began, our society as a whole is likewise fated to return to the stories of its past.
On the rest of the record, Howard then continues her struggle to reckon with history.
In “He Loves Me,” Howard juxtaposes a sampled recording of a pastor preaching with her own interpretation of God’s undying love over a steady rock drum beat. Yet on the cool “Stay High,” she presents a much more laid-back depiction of Southern life with an ode to community and celebration. As she noted in an interview about the video for the song (which she dedicated to her father): “I love my town; I love where I’m from. These people make this town.”
The track “Short and Sweet” may be Howard’s greatest achievement on the album. The song’s stripped-down instrumentation allows Howard’s once-in-a-lifetime voice to take center stage. Soft, lulling and aching, she pleas for the continuation of a single dreamlike moment in time. The sound quality is purposefully grainy, yet when she reaches a point of dramatic crescendo at the end, the line “Time is gonna kill it” is unparalleled in its beauty. This is where Howard hones the distinct sound that she never quite achieves on the rest of the album.
If not the perfect manifestation of Howard’s artistry, “Jaime” is still successful in embracing experimentation as a vehicle for finding its sound. “13th Century Metal,” for example, is a rock headbanger with semi-political lyrics that Howard performs primarily in spoken-word style. A soulfully sung background message to “give it to love” disrupts her speech intermittently. Instrumental layering, though present in some of the Shakes’ music, is used here to a different effect.
“Goat Head” is more R&B than alt-rock. With lyrics semi-spoken and semi-rapped, the rhythm slows between the verses and a more contemplative chorus in which Howard returns to her childhood memory of a goat head placed in the back of her father’s car as a racist act of violence. Poignant and pure, the stark lyrics in this song reflect Howard’s internal struggle with the conflicting blackness and whiteness of her identity.
Speaking to themes both personal and universal, “Jaime” is Howard’s ambitious and exploratory attempt to find her own unique sound. While not necessarily looking for answers, Howard questions and navigates various contradictions that arise when trying to find meaning in one’s past and future. Through this exploration, Howard shows a side of herself that she had not yet been able to share. If this album is not a masterwork, it’s a sign that Howard is growing as an artist.