Brittany Howard – What Now

Following the release of their second album, Sound & Color, Alabama Shakes were slated to scale even greater heights than a US Number One album and four Grammy Awards. However, Brittany Howard had reached a crossroads. Her decision to step away in 2018 wasn’t a move against the band – “incredible” is how she described the Shakes’ achievements to Uncut – but rather towards creative and personal fulfilment. The wisdom of that move was borne out by Jaime, her 2019 solo debut, which landed as a tour de force of funk, jazzy R&B, soul and blues-edged rock, corralled into songs about everything from racism to a childhood crush on an older girl.


If that stylistic departure both surprised and impressed, Howard has trumped it with the follow-up, a Jaime 2.0 likely to secure her status as an auteur in terms of both conception and execution. It’s a bigger, freer-thinking and more dynamically audacious record; one which uses lessons learned from her debut – chiefly, to forget any fear and trust herself – while uniting her disparate musical loves and, with long-term collaborator Shawn Everett, being more adventurous in arrangements and production. Howard took a relaxed approach, so much so that when she first started writing, in March 2020, she didn’t really know she was making an album. As she tells Uncut, “I was just day-to-day recording music in this little room in a house I’d rented in Nashville, just going in there and kind of journaling my thoughts and feelings.” It was August 2022 when she went into the studio with a batch of demos, and around three months later What Now was finished. Most of the recording was done at Nashville’s Sound Emporium, with players including the Shakes’ Zac Cockrell on bass and drummer Nate Smith, both returnees from Jaime. Clearly, there’s no bad blood there, and though it’s been more than eight years since the Shakes’ last LP, officially they’re on hold rather than disbanded.


The album’s title is intriguingly slippery: it seems to echo our widespread collective despair and exasperation born of the current global hellscape – what else could possibly happen? – yet lacks the question mark that would indicate righteous ire. At the same time, it’s a kind of rallying cry: we must do something, pronto – but what? In fact, the title track tells of a love that’s died and is a brutally honest, borderline venomous declaration of disengagement: “I surrender, let me go/I don’t have love to give you more,” sings Howard, in her thrillingly powerful growl. “You’re sucking up my energy/I told the truth, so set me free.” That statement, referring not to one particular partner but a situationship the singer found herself in again and again, is set to an infectiously juddering, synth-soul backing. It’s both typical of the self-interrogation at the heart of this record and a strong argument for how much more effective a song may be if the mood contradicts the emotions expressed. It’s a juxtaposition Howard enjoys, having grown up listening to girl groups like The Supremes and The Marvelettes and later picking up on the same, bittersweet interplay in Latine music.

What Now airs less obvious socio-political comment than Jaime: these new songs focus heavily on love and the singer’s behavioural patterns in relationships, her self-exploration the result of “for the first time being able to feel my feelings and look around” during the 2020 lockdown. Meditation, counselling and alternative therapies, including sound baths, also played a part. The exception is “Another Day”, though its message, like that of the brief “Interlude”, which features a clip of Maya Angelou reading from her poem “A Brave And Startling Truth”, is more humanitarian than political. In it Howard, a queer, mixed-race woman, declares her faith in a future where unity and understanding have displaced divisiveness and intolerance: “I believe in a world where we can go outside and/Be who we want and see who we like/And love each other through this wild ride”.

While her ground-level emotions give the songs viability, it’s Howard’s artistry that sends them off on an invigoratingly fresh course, switching between currents of Southern soul, R&B, astral jazz, psychedelic funk, doo-wop, garage blues and rap, while her voice is variously mellow and tender, a belting force of nature, sweetly reassuring and degraded. The hypnotic tones of crystal singing bowls (played by two of her friends) act as a mood reset in between each track, while cardboard boxes, forks and an empty jug are used as instruments. On “Samson”, the otherworldly sounds of the Cristal Baschet can be heard. Opening the set is “Earth Sign”, where in a soaring, multi-tracked vocal Howard manifests her desire for new love in a way that’s more spiritual than carnal or romantic. “I Don’t” follows, reading like an ode to our post-pandemic existential malaise and carried by a sweet mix of doo-wop and vintage R&B given warm, deep-space production. There’s a woozy cocktail of synth soundscaping and cosmic soul on “Red Flags”, which sees Howard admit to a habit of charging headfirst into love while ignoring all warning signs, her voice rising to a sky-scraping falsetto before dropping suddenly to a choral chant, then drifting off into wordless vocables.


On the other side of “Interlude” sits the thumping “Prove It To You”, in which mid-period Prince (Howard’s voice sounds strikingly similar) is recontextualised for loved-up clubbers via broken beats, a tinkling keys motif and clouds of blissed-out synth. “Samson”, the longest track here at just over five minutes, follows. Moody, sensual and effortlessly light on its jazz-soul feet, it features Fender Rhodes and a forlorn, blues-soaked trumpet in a missive about summoning the courage to leave a relationship when, mentally, emotionally and psychically, you’ve already checked out. There’s a radical switch with “Power To Undo”, where high-wattage falsetto, flashes of dirty, buzzing guitar and cardboard-box beats recall a mix of Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Prince and Jack White.

Howard exits with the beautifully bruised “Every Color In Blue”, addressing the depression that’s dogged her since childhood in a voice like an anguished angel, with plaintive trumpet accompaniment. “Here comes that feeling we don’t talk about,” she sings, “that dull cloud coming in on the horizon/I feel the rain but it’s all out of rainbows.” As album closers go, it strikes an unusually sombre note, but the singer told Uncut that she “didn’t want to wrap it up tidily. I didn’t want to end it like everything’s okay, because I don’t think that’s realistic.” As a child she didn’t talk about her feelings, “just never did. I always felt this shame around it. Like, you can’t tell anyone how sad you are.” Emotional truth-telling, broken taboos and myriad questions about how best to live her life in music that thrillingly expands Howard’s artistry, rather than treads old ground. Which begs another question: where might she go next?