What do you get if you mix equal parts self-loathing and anger at the world around you, add a pinch of garage rock, then tip the whole lot into a blender of 60’s soul and R&B? The answer – Benjamin Booker‘s second studio album, Witness.
The record has a lot to contend with. His first self-titled 2014 LP earned him rave critical reviews, as well as tours with the likes of Jack White, and even multiple TV spots in the US and UK. No pressure then…
‘Right on You’ wastes no time in opening the album like a fire-cracker. Providing plenty of in-your-face ferocity and distorted grit, it’s the kind of track that wouldn’t sound out-of-place on your favourite 90’s grunge record. But as second track ‘Motivation’ begins, with stripped back acoustic guitar and a melancholy string quartet, you realise this won’t be an album you can pigeonhole so easily. The track oozes nostalgic soul vibes, and serves up a surprisingly catchy down-and-out lyrical hook to enjoy.
It is here, without a wall of sound to hide behind, that you get to see what makes Booker really stand out; his voice. The tone is rough yet airy, like coarse sandpaper. It’s the kind of worn voice you would associate with smoking more cigarettes than your Grandad would recommend, and not with this spritely 27 year old American.
Title track ‘Witness’ features musical legend Mavis Staples, and shows BB at his most political and, ironically, at his most radio-friendly. Bringing his R&B and gospel roots to the forefront, Booker creates a simple yet catchy bluesy chorus. In between however, lyrics slash at recent police shootings and the state of racial tensions in America in accusatory tone; “Thought that we saw that he had a gun”. In harking back to the music that was key to the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, ‘Witness’ feels incredibly relevant to today.
From this point on themes become more concerned with personal matters. ‘The Slow Drag Under’ is soaked in loneliness and depression, while the ‘The Truth is Heavy’ ponders the paranoia of a failing relationship. Second to last track ‘Carry’ manifests the darkest and most desperate moment, no mean feat for an album so full of hefty subject matter.
Although a mere 10 tracks in length, the plodding blues rhythms and artful drudgery does at times make the album a difficult listening in one sitting. Yet you feel as though each track comes from a genuine place letting Booker’s musical prowess shine through.
Album closer, ‘All Was Well’, is a distorted, brooding crescendo of a track. Booker’s chanting of “If I had my way, I’d tear this building down”, leaves us feeling like we did at the beginning – unsure of which genre to place him in. Yet in a way this seems a fitting end to an album from an artist full of juxtapositions and ironies. Benjamin Booker is a young man with an old man’s voice, a new musician playing an old style of music, and has more aged disdain than many his age. Yet somehow, he manages to culminate all this into something fresh, relevant and undeniably cool.
Witness is out now via Rough Trade.