A Track-by-Track Review of Brittany Howard’s Jamie
Written by Jeff Ramella on October 22, 2019
By Sam Delgado
I was first blessed by the rich soulful vocals of Brittany Howard in my freshman year of high school. Alabama Shakes’s album Sound & Color revealed a world of new and exciting sounds that I wasn’t getting from repeatedly listening to Fall Out Boy and Panic! at the Disco; Alabama Shakes truly kickstarted my perpetual journey into a world of music that pushes boundaries and breaks any prior expectations potential listeners may possess. So when I heard that Brittany Howard, lead vocalist of Alabama Shakes, dropped her solo debut, I instantly geeked out. And, spoiler alert, Brittany Howard brought the heat, once again. Jaime is (no pun intended) short and sweet. Eleven tracks, thirty-five minutes; listening to this album isn’t much of a commitment, but I guarantee you, the first track alone will have you hooked.
[tl;dr at the end]
✺ “History Repeats” introduces the album with a tight drum roll and percussive beat that draws the listener in, and when the drumroll crashes a funky guitar solo replaces it and sets the lively and energetic tone of the song. Brittany Howard is tired of feeling deja vu over events that should have been dealt with in the past, which introduces time as a recurring theme within the album. She questions why people continue to “defeat themselves,” by repeating past mistakes, and her repetition of the hook ironically reflects this message.
✺ The next track, “He Loves Me,” is Howard’s confident assurance that despite what objections overly pious Christians might have (objections which she provides direct samples of throughout the song), she knows that God loves her despite any indulgences into vices including alcohol and marijuana. The laid back energy of the song coupled with Howard’s warm and positive vocals accurately conveys the love she feels from God, and the comfort she possesses knowledge that he will never judge her. However, she juxtaposes this energy with sudden eruptions of intense vocals and raw electric guitar riffs, which emphasizes her genuine passionate love for God. All this aural artwork is supported by a steady bass that establishes the track’s soulful groove, a groove that continues into the following song on the album.
✺ In “Georgia,” Brittany Howard perfectly expresses the awkwardness, fear, and all-encompassing infatuation notwithstanding any anxiety-inducing emotions that come with discovering your first gay crush. The song opens almost meekly, with only one idea for certain, “I just want Georgia to notice me.” The lyrics depict the introspective bargaining of a young Brittany Howard trying to reconcile her fear of being “unnatural,” for loving a girl and her knowledge that she’s being sincere, and can’t help innocently crushing on Georgia. The song closes with the crashing of bombastic synths, blustering guitar, and bold percussion that makes the listener feel the fervor behind young Brittany Howard’s longing and emotion.
✺ “Stay High” features a wonderfully ethereal instrumental that represents the high she feels when she gets to unwind by embracing the love she shares with her partner. The song is a sugary sweet tune that echoes a common wish for wonderful love to somehow manifest an ecstatic eternal present.
✺ “Tomorrow” provides a refreshing change of pace and tonal shift, and elaborates on Howard’s bad habit of living life on autopilot, accepting her poor decisions as routine, and promising that “tomorrow I’ll be better.” At this lyric, the music shifts and takes on the elusive nature that the word “tomorrow,” possesses; people “always talk about tomorrow,” but in truth, we exist in a perpetually transitory state, constantly losing what is becoming past and hurtling towards a future that is always becoming present. Tomorrow never really comes and stays, so there will always be “tomorrow,” to push your responsibilities onto. But Brittany Howard asks: if people keep living like this, never carpe-ing the diem, how can anyone improve themselves, or better their circumstances? In a way, we’re already here, in yesterday’s tomorrow, so what now? (Spoiler alert: she ain’t talkin’ ‘bout tomorrow. The answer is to live for today.)
✺ “Short and Sweet” is heart-achingly delicate; the minimalist acoustic instrumental appropriately exposes the soulful beauty of Brittany Howard’s vocals. In this song, Howard laments over her desire to engage in a romantic relationship that she knows is destined to end. Despite this foreknowledge, she’d rather enjoy the brief pleasures of a fling’s beginnings, rather than hesitate and allow time to kill what could have been. Even if it’s foolish to dream of this lost cause, it’s better than not dreaming at all; even if she’s left hurting after it’s all over, it’s better than the lonely, empty hurt she feels in longing for love. This unrequited yearning and lust is truly a deceptively toxic form of self-harm, and it can drive even the most collected person mad. The closing’s rushed tempo and increasing volume emulate this feeling of exasperation.
✺ The cacophonous rock in “13th Century Metal” is awesome and electrifyingly motivating. Brittany Howard vows to live in obligation to “spreading the enlightenment of love, compassion, and humanity,” and the general improvement of humanity. She will accomplish this by being mindful of her actions as an individual, and reflecting values imparted to her by God. This religious theme is found in the song’s striking similarity to a gregorian chant. The percussion in this song absolutely goes off as the foundation of the song’s manic energy, which can probably be attributed to the fact that it’s entirely improvised.
✺ “Baby” addresses that former partner that asked for everything but refused to provide anything in return. It summarizes that post-breakup clarity that mistreated people gain; that realization that your biggest mistake was allowing some trash individual to even call you “baby.” In the lyrics, Howard ironically refers to this ex by the same pet name, giving it a condescending edge in context to the song’s attitude. The groove in “Baby,” is strong and bold, displaying Howard’s regained self-confidence, and it’s impossible to ignore it’s commanding energy, especially by the song’s jazzy and energetic end.
✺ In the deeply personal “Goat Head,” Brittany Howard reflects on the racism she had to face in her youth, regardless of how young she might have been. The initial lyricism is simple and childlike; she focuses her observation on colors, much like a toddler would, but the subject matter voices the confusion Howard felt as a young girl in the south. She questions the caucasian appearance of God when all her other heroes are black. She notes the racial difference between her own parents and comes to the conclusion that something must be wrong with her being biracial, based on the reactions of her racist neighbors. The real punch in the song comes with an instrumental change up and Howard blatantly asking, “Who slashed my dad’s tires and put a goat head in the back?” The lyrics purposefully shock and grab the listener’s attention, just as it would have shocked and greatly upset Howard as a child. This event caused Howard to question her supposedly controversial existence as a biracial child. Is she white, or is she black? The clever lyrics “I’m one drop of three-fifths, right?” alluding to America’s racist history which involved identifying each black person as three-fifths of a citizen. This literal dehumanization persisted into the childhood of Brittany Howard, and “Goat Head” unapologetically faces its listeners with this dark reality.
✺ “Presence” is Brittany Howard’s celebration of a fulfilling love that encourages her to love herself and negates any concerns about the future, since appreciating the present she shares with her partner trumps any appeal future possibilities may possess. The harp brings back that ethereal quality also present in “Stay High”; Brittany Howard feels most blessed when she is simply in the wonderful presence of her partner.
✺ According to Brittany Howard, this song was written while she was stuck in a relationship that left her feeling unhappy and drained. “Run to Me” came to her on an ordinary day while she was cleaning her house. The song seems to be from the perspective of God, who is encouraging Howard to run into His embrace when she feels at her worst. When the world alienates and scorns her, Brittany Howard feels God’s promise that He will always be present to comfort her.
[tl;dr] Jaime is an intensely intimate album that gives listeners insight into Brittany Howard’s most vulnerable and raw recollections. The title alone is a tribute to Brittany Howard’s older sister Jaime, who introduced Brittany to the world of music by helping her write her first song but sadly passed away after battling a rare form of eye cancer. The album delves into themes of time, identity, and religion, and love. Howard continues to push musical boundaries by fusing elements of funk, jazz, soul, electronic, and even Gregorian chants, to accurately and precisely mirror the nuance of emotions expressed in her lyrics. The manic energy of the percussion throughout the album, the electrifying synths in “Georgia” and “Run to Me,” and ethereal instrumentals on tracks such as “Presence” and “Stay High,” prove her expertise in finding exactly what sound to couple with the messages in her music. Brittany Howard’s signature change-ups at the end of her songs never get old, since they maintain thematic relevance. Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t praise her vocal professionalism and prowess; Howard’s unique timbre perfectly encapsulates the soulful power packed into her lyrics. The only peculiar aspect of the album lies within its track sequence. The consistent romantic theme in the album’s first half provides a satisfying cohesion, but from “13th Century Metal” on, the composition lacks thematic continuity (why is Goat Head in the middle of “Baby” and “Presence?”). However, this awkward pacing does not in any way detract from my love of each track, and ultimately the album as a whole.
Fave Tracks: He Loves Me, Georgia, Short and Sweet
Rating: 8 out of 10