In late September, Brittany Howard released her first solo album and embarked on a two-month international tour. The album, Jaime, takes its name from the older sister who taught Howard to play the piano and who died of cancer as a teenager. A short half-hour and eleven tracks long, Jaime artfully unfolds its maker’s history: her loves, perspective, anxieties and wounds.
To work on this project, Howard stepped away from her role as lead vocalist and guitarist for the blues-rock band Alabama Shakes, which took three Grammy awards for their 2015 album Sound & Color. While certain elements of Jaime feel continuous with the Shakes—Zac Cockrell, Howard’s friend since high school, remains on bass guitar—the album is nothing short of kaleidoscopic. From the lackadaisical beat and acoustic strummings of “Stay High” to the persistent and chaotic energy of the spoke-sung “13th Century Metal,” Howard achieves incredible musical diversity with just a keyboard, two guitars, and a talented mix artist.
She also takes full advantage of the solo genre, inviting us to share in her emotions while constantly reminding us of the otherness of her experiences. Songs like “Baby” and “Short and Sweet” are warmly human, reflecting on the joys and pains of falling in love, while the painfully particular “Georgia” and “Goat Head” chronicle Howard’s struggles growing up in the South as the gay daughter of an interracial couple. Howard even ventures into the spiritual realm with “13th Century Metal” and “He Loves Me,” though these tracks feel less like explorations of the divine than anthems of human empowerment, suffused by a general distaste for conventional religion. The “constancy” of divine love in “He Loves Me” functions primarily as an all-embracing endorsement of Howard’s life and choices and falls flat in comparison to the human loves that Howard depicts.
Pervading the album, however, is the fundamental difficulty that time poses for our thoughts, actions, and—most importantly—our ability to love. The music itself conveys this, and this is why Jaime is worth several successive listens. Particularly in her intros, Howard builds repetitive structures to evoke a sense of anticipation and longing similar to the feeling of Sound & Color. Her lyrics, too, express the frustrations of living in time. The opening track, “History Repeats,” establishes the theme: “History repeats and we defeat ourselves/Come on everybody, one more time again.” In the middle of the album, “Short and Sweet” opens by pleading for a slow, relaxed love (“Time can do what it wants with it”) that then grows to a frantic cry: “So, why can’t I wait?/ Why can’t I wait?/Why can’t I think?/Why can’t I wake without you always appearing?/Oh, I better not wait too long/’Cause time is gonna kill it.” Howard’s phrasing is halting, her pace rubato as she seeks to understand the relationship between time’s agency and her own. “Tomorrow” is the most full-throated on this subject, calling us to task for always promising that “tomorrow/ I ain’t talkin’ bout tomorrow.” What “stands in the way” of clearer vision, of fuller love, is nothing but our very selves. And yet, history repeats and we defeat ourselves.
Howard’s vision of human life is far from grim, but Jaime doesn’t allow easy answers. Howard prefers to dwell in the questions that are most basic and most troublesome for human beings, and she demands that you ask them too: “now that we’re here, what you gon’ do with it?”
Cait Weighner is a senior studying philosophy.