The Lowdown: What can you do in four years? You can start and complete high school and live through two election cycles (barely). You can watch the men’s US soccer team perform disastrously in the World Cup twice, or you can watch the women’s team wipe the floor with the other teams in the World Cup — twice.
Over the course of four years, you can also release a soul-crushingly good sophomore album and win three Grammys as a result. You can lead your incredibly successful band through a world tour, garnering a deluge of critical delight and fan adoration. You can find yourself dwindling as the success becomes entirely emotionally draining. You can watch as the band disintegrates after your decision to put the project on hold (which the other members took graciously). Then you can psychology recuperate, work on two side-projects, get married, begin writing a memoir, stop writing a memoir, and start tackling your first ever solo album.
For Alabama Shakes frontwoman Brittany Howard, the latter loosely sums up the course of her last four eventful years. With all of that behind her, she’s now stepping out on her own with Jaime, the devastatingly long-anticipated album named after her late sister.
The Good: Jaime is 35 minutes of almost solely uninterrupted greatness. Howard masterfully bobs and weaves between genres, never letting the listener get fully situated. In fact, there’s no real defined pace or mood carried consistently throughout the record, which actually works here. Howard is showing us just how easy it is for her to do it all. On “History Repeats”, Howard slurs and chants effortlessly over a futuristic funk production. Then, on “He Loves Me”, she delivers what youth pastors in beanies have been trying to accomplish for years: a genuinely cool and — dare I say — relatable song about her relationship with God. “I know he still loves me when I’m smoking blunts/ Loves me when I’m drinking too much,” Howard sings.
“He Loves Me” is one of the tracks that sounds resoundingly similar to her work with Alabama Shakes, and yet, the topic would never have been breached by that band. And that’s the beauty of this record as a whole: While Jaime recalls the beloved sound of the band that made her a success, Howard has allowed herself the freedom to both uncover the layers of her personal identity and translate them into an engrossing story of personhood. This is also depicted on “Goat Head”, where Howard unpacks her experience of growing up biracial in the South. After she was born, Howard explains that the tires on her father’s car were slashed, and someone put a goat head in the backseat. “See, I’m black, I’m not white/ But I’m that, nah, nah, I’m this, right? I’m one drop of three-fifths, right?” she asks. It’s here that we begin to truly understand the power of Howard’s autonomy.
The Bad: There’s one true moment of weakness on Jaime: “13th Century Metal”. Positioned as the seventh song of the album, it follows the intoxicating lullaby “Short and Sweet”, creating a jarring juxtaposition between the simplistic and overproduced melodies. While “13th Century Metal” definitely serves as a change of pace, it’s also an overwhelmingly heavy-handed zaS on an otherwise subtle record. Because Howard carries an inherent preacher-like power, when she actually tries to assume that role, it sounds forced. By the time the song is over and the simple instrumentals of “Baby” initiate, there’s a palpable release of tension.
The Verdict: Although Howard said she made this album entirely for herself, its effect will irrevocably improve the lives of post-Alabama Shakes fans everywhere. Frankly, it’s hard to even fully describe what it is about Howard that’s so magnetic. Look at the song “Georgia”, for example. There’s one main lyric repeated: “I just want Georgia to notice me.” It’s not an earth-shattering lyric. Hell, it’s pretty much as simple as it can get. But when it’s sung with that irresistible draw and raspy growl, it seems revolutionary. With Jaime, Howard proves what many of us already speculated: The magic behind Alabama Shakes was Brittany Howard.
Essential Tracks: “Georgia”, “Goat Head”, and “Baby”