Those among us who rebuke change are doomed to stagnancy, complacency, even failure. You see it in relationships all the time—when one person changes faster than the other, or one just doesn’t change at all. We all saw it in politics yesterday, when Donald J. Trump singlehandedly, shortsightedly decided to withdraw the United States from the environmental pact known as the Paris Accord. And in music, we tend to lambast the bands that stick with the same structural tendencies and lyrical templates for too long.
Ironically, the most frequent criticism to New Orleans-based guitarist/songwriter Benjamin Booker’s new music is that it’s not what he did on his 2014 self-titled debut. They say he changed too quickly, too drastically. They miss the aimless rock ‘n’ roll. But after invoking Our Holy Spirit of Not Reading The Comments and just listening to Witness with open ears and hearts, Booker’s music emerges as defiant, insightful and both intimately and communally self-actualizing.
For the most part, Booker leaves behind the punk-inspired blues rock of his first LP. Sequels to the snarling “Have You Seen My Son” and the quick-hitting “Violent Shiver” can be found bookending Witness on the opening “Right On You” and less-than-two-minute closing “All Was Well.” But for the most part, Booker trades the yelping for melodic musings, offering a soulful, fearless record that castigates racial and social injustices today.
Frequently, Booker seems to search for a reason behind the racism he grew up with in Virginia and Florida. As a brief string introduction hits its vibrato-laden peak in “Believe,” he sings, “I just want to believe in something/I don’t care if it’s right or wrong/I just want to believe in something/How can I make it on my own?” That doubt returns in “Overtime,” as Booker wonders, “When did you become such a faithless man?”
But the highpoint of Witness is its title track, in which Booker collaborates with gospel legend Mavis Staples (even dropping the f-bomb in front of her, which is actually a pretty punk-rock move). Each narrative verse returns to the pre-chorus, quote obviously about Trayvon Martin. Booker switches back from his rasping half-rapping to his singing voice and describes, “See we thought that we saw that he had a gun/Thought that it looked like he started to run.” Each time, the maternal Staples interjects, “Am I gonna be a witness?” That line especially serves as a rallying point for the whole album. It’s rhetorical, but also pragmatic—a reminder that our greatest chances for success happen when we have are when we grow and change together.