Vermilion Sands

posted: 2024-03-31 What Now Brittany Howard

released: 2024-02-09
on label: Island
artist: Brittany Howard
with some: Neo-SoulFunk RockNeo-Psychedelia
listen at: Apple Bandcamp Sound Cloud Spotify
more reviews: NME Paste Pitchfork Slant The Guardian

It’s hard not to view What Now as a reaction to Jaime, both as a title and an album. Brittany Howard spent that 2019 album plumbing the depths of her soul, dedicating the record to her deceased sister and exploring the lingering trauma of that loss. With that catharsis out of the way, it’s natural to ask, “what now?” The answer is liberation, with Howard diving into the freeing rush of psychedelic soul in all its myriad forms. A hybrid of a breakup record and pandemic reflection, What Now finds Howard looking inward lyrically while setting her sights on the farthest reaches of her musical purview. Although she’s reuniting with Shawn Everett, who first collaborated with her as an engineer on Alabama Shakes’ Sound & Color and is a co-producer here, she’s hardly reverting to the Americana of her first band.

Using Prince as a guiding star, Howard places funk at the foundation of What Now, then layers on piercing falsettos, thick shards of guitars, and melodies that tease. Despite her clear debt to the Purple One and the occasional nod to other retro styles (“I Don’t” is a ’70s Philly soul slow-burner at heart), What Now is hardly an exercise in nostalgia. Howard dresses the album in electronic flair, underpinning her swirling aural explorations with skittering drumbeats and sequencing the entire record with the logic of a lysergic journey; the texture matters more than hooks. While each song may have a distinct character – the title track has a coiled urgency, countered by the hushed shimmer of “To Be Still” – the individual tracks matter less than the collective experience. Isolated songs may hint at Howard’s expanded emotional and musical palette, but What Now is a proper album, where each segment expands and interlocks, providing a whole that’s greater than its separate parts.