The cover of You’re The One is a pretty unmistakable statement of intent. It’s a close-up headshot of the artist, with a front cover tracklisting and bulbous, colourful typefaces. It is instantly evocative of a late 1960s or early 1970s release by Tammy Wynette, Aretha Franklin, Bobbie Gentry, Dolly Parton or Loretta Lynn – the old school of confessional singers who very much wanted the purchaser to know that they were buying a little piece of them.
You’re The One is partially a homage to this period and this ilk of country and soul, but not entirely – it was always unlikely that an artist as versatile and restless as Rhiannon Giddens was going to be comfortable within the confines of a single genre. In the six years since her previous solo album, Freedom Highway, Giddens has been awarded a MacArthur “Genius” grant, won a Pulitzer Prize for her work on an opera about the enslaved West African theologian Omar Ibn Said, a Grammy for one of her albums with her partner, the Italian composer Francesco Turrisi, and worked on musical projects including, but not limited to, Our Native Daughters – the latter a banjo supergroup with Allison Russell, Leyla McCalla and Amythyst Kiah, whose sole album to date was a highlight of 2019. In between all of which and more, she starred in two seasons of high-gloss country soap Nashville and wrote a series of children’s books.
Giddens also wrote or co-wrote everything on You’re The One, with the exception of “Good Ol’ Cider”, a brief traditional bluegrass instrumental which closes the album with a zestful reminder of Giddens’ virtuosity on the banjo, and concludes an eventful musical journey at her musical roots. The trip begins with “Too Little, Too Late, Too Bad” – co-written, along with two other tracks, by Dirk Powell. It’s a partial introduction to what follows, in that it is a classic soul track with a classic country title, Giddens delivering this Franklin-via-Winehouse kiss-off to the faithless oaf who inspired it with the relish of a woman realising that a punchy brass section and sweetly shooping backing singers are better company anyway.
There is, indeed, about half a side here of an extremely niche concept album of soul songs with country titles. “Wrong Kind Of Right” is a starkly articulated – and beautifully sung – coming to terms with a lopsided relationship, acknowledging the reality while pledging, either stoically or foolishly, to sink still further costs (“But I wouldn’t change a thing/I’ll just dive into the fall”). “Hen In The Foxhouse” has a lyric of the kind of droll defiance patented by Loretta Lynn, set to a backing track, and delivered with a vocal more evocative of the strut and sass of Patti LaBelle. Giddens’ voice draws from the soul and country palettes with equal ease, blessed with the tremor and drama demanded by the former, the conversational warmth required for the latter – and, as she demonstrates on the exquisite “Who Are You Dreaming Of”, the combination of all of the above necessary to carry off the string-drenched Petula Clark-ish torch ballad.
In general, however, the countrier she keeps it, the better. “Yet To Be”, a stomping duet with Jason Isbell, is the tale of a Black woman and an Irish man, each running away from something and finding each other – and also a cautious celebration of the fact that this kind of happy ending is no longer as remarkable as it would have been until depressingly recently (“The here and now is better than it was back then”). “You Louisiana Man” sounds more or less exactly how you’d expect a song called “You Louisiana Man” to sound, all accordion and banjo and keening fiddle over crackling drums and humid electric piano. “If You Don’t Know How Sweet It Is”, co-written with Bhi Bhiman, throws back to the Dolly Parton/Loretta Lynn tradition of final warnings issued by women too long taken for granted (“You’re good, but I’ll find better.”) “Way Over Yonder”, co-written with Keb’ Mo’, is an exultant front-porch gospel stomper celebrating more earthly redemptions than the title suggests, specifically “a little bitty joint just out of town, got the best fried chicken for miles around”.
Giddens’ resume to date is the kind of thing which prompts awe not only at her range, but her time-management skills. It is difficult to know what she’ll do next. For the moment, however, there is ample reason to be glad she did this.