ABOVE THE CURRENT
Why would anyone not be excited upon learning that one of their favorite artists is delivering a new album? When it signals that the beloved band she captains probably isn’t releasing another one of its own anytime soon, of course. When Jack White stepped away to pursue other projects, he didn’t initially announce that The White Stripes were over, but fans started to get the hint over time as he issued more albums through side projects and on his own. Brittany Howard—like White, a distinct and revered guitarist—hasn’t definitively said whether the band that made her famous, Alabama Shakes, are entirely through. But now with her second solo effort out in the world, hopes for a Shakes comeback are dwindling.
In 2018, Howard stepped away from the band to work on Jaime, a well-received debut that she toured behind the following year. Then, Shakes guitarist Heath Fogg issued his own endeavor, Sun on Shade, as a project with the same name. And now, with What Now, it seems far less likely that the band will return anytime soon (to say nothing of the fact that Shakes drummer Steve Johnson has been slapped with domestic violence and child abuse charges). “I’ve been making plans that don’t include you anymore,” Howard sings on her new album’s title track. “My heart wants to stay, but I don’t know what for / I can’t have it always thinking for me / I’ve been learning lessons I didn’t wanna know / I wonder if I stay because it’s comfortable / If you notice I ain’t trying.”
Meanwhile, “Samson” finds her attesting: “I know I’m not the person you were introduced to… It’s getting harder not to disappoint you.” And on “Patience” she croons, “All we need is a little patience, girl.” It’d be easy to read into any of those lyrics as references to the Shakes. Then again, they could also be alluding to romantic relationships or even close friendships. No fewer than six other musicians come together to help Howard realize the 12 songs on her sophomore set, with one of them—guitarist Brad Allen Williams, who’s previously collaborated with Bilal and CeCe Winans—also helping her write the song “To Be Still.” That’s not to mention co-producer/engineer Shawn Everett, whose credits include Alvvays and The War on Drugs in addition to Alabama Shakes’ 2015 opus Sound & Color.
Still, What Now is really all about Howard. As opposed to the Shakes—and much like Jaime—it’s her larger-than-life-sounding vocals that dominate the songs, with jazzy backdrops of guitar, drums, bass, horns, and keys filling out the background. In fact, this record sounds so close to its predecessor that she could’ve titled it Jaime Pt. 2. On the other hand, Howard’s first solo endeavor was thematically tied to her late sister, who passed away at a young age due to cancer of the eye. What Now revolves around broader themes like self-empowerment and self-motivation and learning how to move on. In fact, this record contains so many credos that Howard could’ve used that word as its title.
But even though Jaime earned Howard accolades galore, including GRAMMYs and GLAAD nominations, What Now is even more masterful, with the second half of the album—“Samson” and a short interlude, in particular—seeing Howard and her current collaborators showing their instrumental chops while she steps away from the mic. This record doesn’t seek answers as much as provide definitive statements about how to conduct one’s own personal affairs; after all, the album’s title isn’t punctuated with a question mark. The result is Howard sounding more mature and accomplished than ever—and crafting a rousing, pleasant, and fun record that captures the feeling of adventure. “I’m having the time of my life,” Howard sings on “Another Day.” Sure sounds like it.