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The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

The return of Brittany Howard with ‘What Now’

Brittany Howard

Leading up to the release of Brittany Howard’s new album What Nowon Feb. 9, the former Alabama Shakes frontwoman seemed to become more and more unpredictable with every single. Each new teaser hopped nonchalantly between electro-funk, neo-soul, and even house, to the point where it became worrying that What Nowmight be an album brought down by a lack of cohesion, if anything else. 

In comparison to Howard’s 2019 solo debut Jaime,” which was rooted thoroughly in soul and blues music, What Now is all over the board. The album is never content to stay in any one place, though this is not out of fear of becoming plain, but seemingly because Howard views the immense diversity of genres as a medium through which to channel herself and her thoughts on the current state of the world. 

Everything seems to be getting more extreme, and everyone keeps wondering ‘What now? What’s next?’,” the Nashville-based singer-songwriter stated in a press release. “By the same coin, the only constant on this record is that you never know what will happen next. Every song is its aquarium, its little miniature world built around whatever I felt and thought at the time.” 

In listening to Howard’s newly released record, it may be fair to say that her stylistic experiments paid off in spades, as What Nowis a total smashing success in every way.

What Nowis just as colorful as its eye-catching cover, a record of tangible texture and pleasant sensation that washes over a listener, much like the colorful bath/dress that engulfs Howard. 

Opener “Earth Sign” finds the singer serenading the forces of nature in a search for love, her airy, drawn-out calls of “Will I know when I feel it?” grounded only by superstar drummer Nate Smith’s funky, freeform playing.

Then there’s the moody single “Red Flags,” which—true to its name—sees Howard examine her naivete regarding warning signs in past relationships. 

“I followed you and didn’t look back / I didn’t know love could feel like that / I ran right through them red flags,” she mutters over an instrumental pulsing with subdued vigor, grooves, and melodies pacing away in the dark. 

“Red Flags” fully unveils itself in the chorus, a rapturously beautiful explosion of rhythm and color defined by Howard’s stunning voice. She soars above the low end with a powerful desperation that stands in stark contrast to the previously subdued sound, like a single, brilliant ray of light piercing a sea of stormy clouds.

If there’s one aspect of Howard that has stayed consistently top-tier, from her days in Alabama Shakes through Jaime and now her latest release, it is her energy. Through every track on What Now,” Howard retains the ferocity and vocal control that made her a standout frontwoman, an intuitive knowing in when to restrain herself and when to let it all out. On the title track, the singer’s anger at a failing partner is palpable, her voice nearly devolving into a snarl when she bemoans how the person in question is “fucking up her energy.”

But Howard also knows when to ease up. The spare, acoustic “To Be Still” is a wonderful reprieve in a turbulent tracklist. Highlight “Samson,” the album’s longest and most chill track, observes the songwriter floating away in the murk, her lowkey vocalizations complemented by distant horns and keys that hover like bees around a beautiful flower. Eventually, though, Howard fades out, which causes the song to fall deeper inwards and morph into an ambient jam sesh, horns and keys trading bars in the notable silence left by Howard’s absence. 

But Howard is nothing if not a fan of music. 

What Now is the product of someone who can’t decide what kind of album she wants to make, instead concluding that she will do all of it. Across the record, the singer-songwriter pulls from R&B legends like D’Angelo, neo-soul contemporaries such as Aussie visionaries Hiatus Kaiyote, and dance masters in the vein of Daft Punk and Justice. She does this all with impressive finesse, integrating a wide swath of styles and moods into her signature soul sound without a hitch. 

There is never a point on What Nowwhere the music feels disjointed, perhaps partially because many of the songs flow into each other, but also because Howard is such an expert songsmith and has an innate understanding of every genre she works with—no song is half-finished. 

On “Prove It To You,” she unexpectedly employs a classic ‘90s house beat. Though many other artists would turn it into a typical dance number topped off with a looping vocal sample, she does anything but. Instead, she piles on massive synths that swell alongside her vocals in a mesmerizing track that ends up as both a pitch-perfect homage to the house bangers of yore and a spellbinding piece of modern pop perfection. 

If Howard achieved one thing on What Nowmore than anything else, it was that she stuck to her vision and reaped the rewards. Her idea of writing songs based around “whatever I was thinking and feeling at the time” has resulted in some truly gorgeous music, songs of heart-rending melody, deep groove, and irreproachable vibe, which work in goosebumps and scrunched-up faces and a complementary “holy shit” after the song ends.

Album closer “Every Color in Blue” is like Howard’s version of a math rock song, looping duel guitars, anxious, jittering drums, and interweaving pianos and horns, creating a brain-scratcher of a tune over which the singer chirps and blurts out her most abstract lyrics: 

“It’s all mine / Leave me behind / To fight / Too high / Too deep / You won’t find me.”

Howard is at the edges of her creative experimentation here, stretched so far from her soul and blues roots that she’s beginning to sound like a different beast entirely. Maybe that’s the point. Still, she’s determined to end it on a solid note. In a swirling tempest of trumpet and guitar, she chants the final lines of What Nowlike a mantra uniting mind and earth, “Dopamine leaves /  Takes me / Eviscerates me / Too raw / Tuned out / And I can’t believe I’m all out of rainbows.”

Howard is at the outer edges of herself, her world, her music. Will she turn back? Or will she march boldly into the future? Only time will tell.

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