The Servant (A-Tone Recordings/Extreme Music)
They do things differently in the South, for which, often enough, we have reason to be very thankful.
It doesn’t always make complete sense from this distance, but that’s okay when the result is satisfying, right? As I’ve said to myself many times in the past 22 years since I belatedly discovered her: after all, Shelby Lynne from Alabama has her reasons.
For example, since late last year there has been a gorgeous, slow burning soul album of hers, The Healing, accessible only to stream from her label’s website - with seemingly no plans to make it available to those of us who would kill for a chance to buy a physical version. (I want it on vinyl but I’d settle for a CD Ms Lynne, if you’re reading.)
Songwriting/singing-wise and emotionally, it is exactly the kind of record that would have offered healing and comfort through this year. But no, we can’t have it.
Instead, Lynne now has released The Servant, 10 (completely different) songs which she describes as not just “one of my proudest achievements” but a restorative exercise, because “making it saved my soul”. It is an album in its own way for and about healing. For her obviously, but also about the healing ways of god – one regular Christian god in this case, but really, applicable anywhere you create a deity for yourself.
Nine of the ten songs are gospel songs that rise from the South, of both White and Black traditions, with the final track the folk song, Wayfaring Stranger, pretty much a song of church and faith anyway. And they are performed with the bared spirit of someone wanting to believe rather than the fervour of someone wanting you to believe. Which, in this case, means carrying the freight of previous hurts and tribulations with every elevation of the soul, but also being ready to take to the wing when opportunity arises because, well, because who knows when it might come ‘round again?
From the open electric guitar beneath her firm declarations in Go Tell It On The Mountain (softened by the low rise of the choir in each refrain even as the full band sound stands solidly), to the picked acoustic guitar accompanying the softened edges of her voice in Wayfaring Stranger, this is a record which doesn’t overload, which doesn’t come charging at you, but rather it plays to its strengths: her ability to tell a story in tone and pause and character.
Swing Down, Sweet Chariot chugs along like a riding blues, letting her almost playfully stride alongside, while Didn’t It Rain turns to full joy of the hands in the air and faces turned to the sky, but Swing Low, Sweet Chariot toughens its steps, slide guitar and a low bass hum tethering Lynne to the past, and God’s Gonna Cut You Down, (with its very familiar to non-believers/Moby fans “run on for a long time” hook) has the feel of someone with the full knowledge of the wages of sin. Or, if you like, a Nick Cave trial and retribution tale.
Speaking of Cave and his inspirations, it may be that with the Jordanaires/Sweet Inspirations-style vocal accompaniments among other things, Lynne had in mind something like Elvis Presley’s gospel records. They were used by him to re-centre and rebuild himself when the muck around him got too much, and maybe that’s what she needed.
The success of this unadorned 38 minutes and 11 seconds is that even as a seriously lapsed Catholic (though one still prone to quoting from hymns and homilies because those buggers get into your bones even as you expel them from your mind) I can understand that. Or at least, I can understand her. And that’s all the matters.