Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit

Nashville's Sunny War carves hard-won hope from troubled times on Anarchist Gospel

"Anarchist Gospel"

Release date: 03 February 2023
Sunny War - Anarchist Gospel cover
07 February 2023, 00:00 Written by Janne Oinonen

It can be difficult to locate a genuinely original voice, particularly amidst the tried and tested genre tropes and barely disguised hero worship of esteemed past masters that characterise contemporary American roots music. Guitarist, singer and songwriter Sunny War is one those rarities.

An iconoclastic mash-up of blues, folk, gospel, country, rock ‘n’ roll and anything else that the songwriter born Sydney Ward fancies sampling, Anarchist Gospel is an assured melting pot of disparate influences and ideas that somehow coheres into a unified whole – and ultimately doesn’t really resemble anyone else.

The gestation for Sunny War’s first album for the esteemed label New West after a series of lowkey releases wasn’t easy. Having developed a taste for the blues and fingerpicked guitar alongside politicised punk à la Crass at a young age, she dropped out of school in favour of busking on Venice Beach; addiction to drugs and alcohol and eventual rehab in Compton followed. Sunny War returned to her native Nashville to record Anarchist Gospel after the end of a long-term relationship; once recording had started she found out that her father had become terminally ill.

Anarchist Gospel is the resilient, wise, troubled and bracingly honest distillation of those traumatic experiences. There is heartache and strife here: “Swear to Gawd” rolls out a chilling catalogue of generational conflict between teenagers and overbearing parents, set to a deceptively slinky groove. The sturdy gospel holler of “Love’s Death Bed” carries a bruised confessional from the left behind at the end of a relationship. The stunning “Higher” (highlight on an album with no idling, starring the dexterous guitar work of David Rawlings; Allison Russell and My Morning Jacket’s Jim James are among the album’s other guests) locates freshly resonant ache in the oft-sampled break-up anthem category: the by turns serene and turbulent arrangement is only marginally less effective than the wounded but defiant lyrics.

Ultimately, however, something more hopeful and, well, sunnier than the miserabilism that the heavy subject matter might lean itself towards emerges. “I Got No Fight” could be read as an exhausted addict’s surrender, but the music’s breezy glide suggests a sense of forward-gazing acceptance instead. There are alluring juxtapositions between content and sound throughout: the startlingly energetic gallop of “No Reason” (built on a nimble-fingered riff that could be a radically accelerated Ali Farka Toure tune) hides dark ruminations about the ever-present ‘’beast’’ within, while the beautifully bare “New Day” hints at the impermanence of stability: ‘’my mind may change even when made up’’. Sunny War’s punk roots are reflected in the caustic take-down of systemic oppression of “Test Dummy”.

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