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Brittany Howard’s What Now rewrites her touching life stories in glorious and meditative R&B tapestries

"What Now"

Release date: 09 February 2024
Brittany Howard What Now cover
07 February 2024, 09:00 Written by Tanatat Khuttapan

Former Alabama Shakes singer-songwriter Brittany Howard has found fruitful ways to dive deeper into her personal corners on these new songs.

Since the hiatus from blues-rock band Alabama Shakes, it’s been a goal for her to put more of herself into them. Jaime, her subliminal first solo album released in 2019, set the stage for this thrilling new age of her career with forceful words that embodied newfound integrity and determination. She pushed boundaries of melody and placed her rapturous love and struggles as a Black woman atop, something that was absent in her previous works with the band. This time, she’s set on centering the curiously-titled new record What Now around even more life stories and self-growth, all woven into glorious 90s R&B tapestries.

During the making of it, Howard did “transcendental meditation” to refill the self that had been drained by songwriting. Amidst the maximalist production of What Now, there are soothing synth sections that capture this exact process of recuperation. The atmospheric, instrumental endings of many songs, such as “I Don’t” and “Another Day”, recede to serene tranquillity before transitioning into the next one. They might have worked better had they been longer, but such are great for a brief self-recollection after storms of complex, fervid beats. It’s a motif that nods to the album title too: the musical uproar has ceased, what now?

One of Howard’s greatest qualities is her climactic pacing of each track. It was the kernel of Jaime, where experimentation with hybrid genres was her prime focus, though glimpses of the quirk have appeared before in some of Shakes’s projects (“Rise to the Sun”). Now that she’s more attuned to the concept of blending personal retellings with fluid song structure and sound design, What Now possesses immaculate, natural flows between maximalist and austere instrumentation. “Red Flags” swings seamlessly from meditative to expressionist lilts, which corresponds with its painful rendering of a feeble relationship.

What Now flutters with the vibrancy of the album cover’s newly budded flowers partly because of Shawn Everett, a co-producer who’s worked with Kacey Musgraves and SZA on their most acclaimed albums. His patient but rewarding crescendo in “Earth Sign” spectacularly suits Howard’s lyrics on an urge to embrace her true self. “Out there,” she cries, the instruments piling up for an outburst, “there’s a life waiting for me!” The album’s quiet transcendentalism that’s present in most songs’ endings culminates in drumless and slowburn “Samson”; its long, emotive saxophone loop and eerie noise complement her waning passion in love.

When Howard released the title track four months ago, some were astounded by how poppy, zestful, unlike her it sounds. Aiming for an artistic shift, What Now invests less in psychedelic soul – her signature – and more in vintage R&B, house, and meditative pop. Some might find it a mixed bag due to its atypical diversity, but the songs aren’t too contrasting to be deemed incohesive. Her lyrics are still sharp and impactful, with a little sprinkle of playfulness to fit the dominant genres. The album’s a joyous journey outside the bounds of – and without alienating – the usual, a testament to her considerable, well-rounded talent.

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