On 'What Now,' Brittany Howard is a virtuoso in pursuit of a flow state
For all the Prince worship present in pop culture, there aren't very many contemporary stars who are able to sustain the total relentlessness of his musicality — how talent oozed from every inch and in every direction, how jazz and gospel ran through his blood. Figures like Janelle Monáe have proudly taken up our short king's funk-fueled pursuit of pleasure and androgyny, and his influence surely can be felt in guitar-R&B loverboys like Omar Apollo and Miguel. But that sense of awe one gets from watching Prince play his guitar — it's like the difference between singing and sanging. He made that thing wail, then matched it with a voice capable of articulating entirely new emotions and a sense of rhythm which cannot be taught.
Watching Brittany Howard's video for "What Now," I'm reminded of how Prince would sometimes leave his post at the mic, drop his guitar, and suddenly tear it up behind the drum kit. Howard isn't the star of the action clip, a stage-set neo-noir with a sword fight and a motorcycle chase between lovers; her hands move furiously across both fretboards and snares in stylish balcony footage, a phantom savant haunting the edges of a turbulent world of her own making. Your perception of her playing, more than this person singing, is what you're meant to focus on. She's a guitar god in the shadows — something you can only be when your instrumental skill and style speak for themselves.
On her second solo album, What Now, the former Alabama Shakes leader shows why she's an heir to Prince's expansiveness, at least within the mainstream. As a band leader, producer and a multi-instrumentalist, she is in total control of the album's genre-defying odyssey through this thing called life. She has an ear for carving out memorable hooks and sparse chord progressions, these gorgeous moments of interplay between voice and keys that ground the ever-shifting songs (see: "Samson"). And of course, she majorly channels Prince on Side B: The back half of "Patience" nails the warped, syrupy keys of his early ballads, and "Power to Undo" is kissed with the Purple One's tangy, late-'80s guitar jangle.
Howard possesses two main qualities of absolute Prince-ness: the nimbleness of her playing and the fluidity of her singing. Though there are obvious differences — Prince made music to move the body and provoke the masses, whereas Howard is more cerebral in approach — her vocal malleability allows her to access a whole spectrum of contradictory emotions and gender expressions. She is clearly thinking about her connection to the icon on What Now, having even recorded on a console he used to make a version of his debut album: the way she screeches "I ain't sorry" in the title track, or how on the '60s-soul-indebted "I Don't," her delivery of the two-word phrase hits like a surrender, a kiss-off and a cure. (Free idea for TikTok: The chorus of this song is a "Can I Call You Rose?" situation just waiting to happen.) Her skill borders on virtuosity — this is someone who once visibly moved Joe Biden with a Joni Mitchell cover, who took Paul McCartney's touring guitarist to task for trying to play the solo in "Get Back" when she was standing right there. Just as it was with Prince, it is a gift to watch her work through ideas, grow looser but also more confident in her instincts.
There's a lot going on in these 12 songs, but Howard resets the table for each course. What Now feels of a piece with the new-age jazz of André 3000's New Blue Sun, as a monument to slowing down and exploring the far reaches of the musicians' minds. The album welcomes you into its universe with a cleansing sweep of crystal singing bowls, played by Ann Sensing and Ramona Reid, the latter of The Frequency Center, which specializes in energy healing. These bowls are the kind of thing you hear at a sound bath, with frequencies that facilitate deep relaxation in the brain (falling asleep is not uncommon, nor is feeling the vibrations in your body). They pop up throughout the album in between songs, along with wind chimes, like burning sage to rinse the aura of a room. Though it might seem counterintuitive to creating a flow state, these gentle intros and outros create space to let it all sink in and prepare the listener's mind for the next sequence of ideas. I'm reminded of the gray noise that neurodivergent folks like myself sometimes listen to in states of sensory overload.
Tranquility takes center stage in "To Be Still" through a finger-picked melody and soft backing vocals, which set a path toward a Maya Angelou recitation (from one of her most impactful poems, "A Brave and Startling Truth"). This middle part of the record is where Howard briefly explores ideas of community-building. After the highly personal and political revelations of her first solo album, Jaime — the traumatic childhood loss of her sister; the brutal racism faced by her parents, one white and one Black; her early crushes on older women — What Now can feel broad in this regard. Its one message song, the clattering and funky "Another Day," centers around hopeful empowerment statements like "I know we can do it / Let's get to it."
After sharing some of her heaviest stories on Jaime, it's natural that Howard might experience a sense of "what now?" (though it's worth noting the title isn't posed as a question). She started work on this album during the pandemic, and that feeling of the roadmap going out the window has clearly stuck with her. It's partially a breakup record (and a blunt one at that, with Howard willing to take the heat), kind of a "getting your groove back" album, but also just a snapshot of progression. "Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans," goes the famous quote by Allen Saunders, though a classic-rock aficionado like Howard would probably know it as a John Lennon lyric. Change is constant — there aren't these neat eras that start and end with new haircuts and paramours — but making art is one way to process and bear witness to your own evolution. Once you realize that life just keeps going, in all its backslides and banality, it frees you up to enjoy the journey where you can. That's the sense I get listening to Howard on What Now; her playing has never felt more present and joyful.
Howard's ability to traverse genres as it suits the mood only grows more intuitive over time. Standout track "Prove It to You" sounds like she went to Beyonce's Renaissance tour and wrote her version of a lusty queer club anthem when she got home. It's booming and blown out, the closest she has ever come to writing a "banger," but in her small confessions — "I've never been very good at falling in love / Fall so hard I never get up" — she reveals herself. The stunning closer, "Every Color In Blue," drops you into the action with jazz percussion and tricky, In Rainbows-esque guitar lines, building and building with expressive trumpet and counter-melodies on piano. One of the most interesting compositions of Howard's career, on par with the experimental soul of an artist like L'Rain, it's a concise but dramatic conclusion to the album's growing chaos.
When Brittany Howard emerged with Alabama Shakes more than a decade ago, she was positioned as a soul-rock revivalist, a middle ground between garage-rock basement shows and Daptone Records. With big success came a risk — one that Howard and her bandmates took on gamely with their 2015 sophomore album, Sound & Color. It was a turning point in her music's ambitions, this desire to conjure noise and beauty through a psychedelic wall of sound. That streak of experimentation has clearly never left Howard, and now, having already introduced herself as a solo artist with tales from her formative years, it feels like she can let her playing do what it does best: speak for itself.
Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.