Striking emotion and emphatic soul
Bettye LaVette’s newest album Blackbirds portrays a strong emotional through-line and deals with subjects of love, loss and moving forward, as it highlights influential black vocalists from across the annals of music history. Each of the nine tracks embodies a separate feeling in regards to these themes, and if there has ever been a case for there being more than five stages of grief, this is it.
From the album’s first song “I Hold No Grudge,” a reinterpretation of Nina Simone’s 1967 single, the tone is set with an immediate declaration of emotional neutrality that is clearly both not true, and not deserved. As with the other songs on this album, LaVette’s singing style draws this song into an intensely personal landscape. The way that the percussion chugs out sixteenth notes underneath LaVette’s powerful, raw vocals without fail evokes the situation; while the singer says that she wants to have peace by referencing the laurel wreath, there is an underlying intensity that implies this desire isn’t genuine, that there is still an element left unsaid or perhaps even stifled.
The third track, “Blues For The Weepers,” is another standout thanks to its undeniable groove and somber lyrics. These two facets balance each other out—neither dominates the space, each lifting one another up to make a well-rounded listening experience. There is an air across multiple tracks on this album that, although things are dour, it is up to people to keep moving forward and putting one foot in front of the other.
Things do take a turn downwards across the middle of the album with “Book of Lies” and “Drinking Again,” which bookend the track “In the Dark,” an on-its-face romantic number with a serious passionate kick. However, in the broader context of the album, it is next to impossible to feel like the events of “In the Dark” might not be the best idea for any party involved.
Near the album’s closing point, “Strange Fruit” and “Save Your Love For Me” make a strange pair of penultimate tracks. They mirror off of each other, what with the hopeful vibe of “Strange Fruit” and the ultimately resigned nature of “Save Your Love for Me.” This speaks to an internal conflict in the narrative, one of being so incredibly optimistic about things turning out for the better some day, and at the same point being nearly tongue-in-cheek pessimistic of getting to see it. The track that closes out the record is LaVette’s rendition of the Beatles’ song “Blackbird,” which in this context feels like a soulful ode to the artists referenced on the tracks beforehand. Furthermore, in the emotional graph of the album, “Blackbird” marks a high point right at the end. It is a song of raising one’s head high and moving forward, acknowledging the trials of the past and letting them propel you forward.
Blackbirds is a well-curated collection of highly powerful music that invokes some of history’s finest artists and, in doing so, effectively tells a story about the less delightful and yet often necessary aspects of life.