Brittany Howard Finds Confident Success on What Now
The Alabama Shakes frontwoman proves even further that she is a sensational solo act on her much-anticipated follow-up to 2019’s Jaime.Music Reviews Brittany Howard
Former Alabama Shakes frontwoman and Grammy Award winner Brittany Howard proved her mettle on her first solo album Jaime in 2019. Now, on her follow up, What Now, she has reminded fans (both old and new) that she’s one of the toughest songwriters we’ve got. Relationship blues, healing, making sense of self-sabotaging patterns in friendships and romance are all explored through a jazzy, upbeat, audacious and vulnerable lens on What Now. The album is trimmed of subcutaneous sound, rounding out at just under 38-and-a-half minutes. Howard is here for a good time, not a long time, and bluesy earworms like “Prove It To You” and “Power To Undo” get under your skin, fizzle in your bloodstream and get your toes tapping and then, as cleanly as they began, wrap up neatly.
Her pop-friendly roots-rock finds a conspirator in long-time producer, collaborator and six-time Grammy winner Shawn Everett, who was at the deck for Jaime after working his magic with Alabama Shakes (winning a Best Engineered Album Grammy for the band’s 2015 release Sound & Color). If anyone has justified the term “super producer,” it’s Canadian Everett, who had a massive 2023—working with Miley Cyrus, Chelsea Wolfe, Hozier, Kesha, Black Pumas and SZA, amongst others. He co-wrote, produced, recorded and mixed What Now, giving Howard the opportunity to explore a fusion of jazz, psychedelia, gospel and synth-pop while keeping the throughline in sight throughout.
A sweet solemnity opens What Now, with a cascade of gospel-style layered harmonies falling over a gentle drum pattern on track “Earth Sign.” It prefaces Brittany Howard’s maturing as an artist and a woman, reminding us that however flawed and candid she is going to get on this album, she is ultimately grounded and at home in her body and her story thus far. It’s an album designed to be listened to according to the tracklisting, with the intro of the following song often kicking in at the finale of the song before so that the transition is organic. “Out there, there’s a love waiting for me,” sings Howard on “Earth Sign.” “But, will I know? Will I know when I feel it?” The tangled mess of love, breaking up, making up, toxic lovers and losing yourself in relationships is given an upbeat soundtrack that is gorgeously layered and provides ample room for Howard to croon rather than holler.
Howard’s statement solo debut Jaime largely built off the sound she established as the key songwriter and frontwoman of Alabama Shakes, adopting the same bluesy vibe, while steering the focus further into R&B, which remains the direction of What Now. A fuzzy guitar melody atop a funky bassline drives the catchy radio-beloved single through to its ultimatum on the title track, when Howard, frazzled and restless, demands, “If you want someone to hate, then blame it on me.”
On the tail of What Now, the mellow, glitchy percussion of “Red Flags” provides a balm—luscious with hymnal harmonies and Howard’s big, soulful voice pleading for love to be stronger than the red flags that are giving her doubts. “I followed you and didn’t look back, I didn’t know love could feel like that,” she sings. “I ran right through them red flags, I ran right through them.” Elsewhere, Howard channels Nina Simone on the bluesy, gorgeously nostalgic “To Be Still,” in which her voice melts over the chorus. In keeping with the eclectic but coherent flavor of What Now, a juicy bassline is flourished with improv-style jazz instrumentals woven through the closing track “Every Color In Blue.”
There’s a confidence and vulnerability Brittany Howard fearlessly reveals on this album, which is more adventurous and riskier than Jaime. The Prince-inspired, funk-infused “Prove It To You,” with its brilliant, unabashed, funky soul, finds Howard contrasting the album’s soundscape by dialing back the drama, which is especially noticeable on closing track, “Every Color In Blue.” When Howard made her home in a spacious Nashville cottage just prior to the pandemic hitting, the garage became a space for collecting vintage recording gear and the ghosts of past greats, like James Brown, lurk within the buzzy guitar and buoyant bass in What Now. Contrasted with the nostalgic blues and funk of the 1970s is a glimmer of contemporary New Age elements—think bells, crystals, tarot, psychic energies and astrology.
What Now addresses big themes—love, life and destruction—and, in places, it delivers a massive, eclectic sound. But, for the most part, there’s a subtleness and joyful, rhythmic gentleness to Howard’s songs that suggest she’s dialed it all the way up to a 10 at some point and then siphoned off all the excess to let her own voice take center stage. “Earth Sign” signals Howard’s assuredness in herself, after all the pandemic-era soul searching she went through. As a listener, I felt my own vulnerabilities and fears around love, ingrained patterns, self-sabotage and doubt echoed in Howard’s heartfelt lyrics, but all of this frailty is celebrated in What Now. It’s part of being a woman, a human, a lover and a friend. And, whether it serves a therapeutic purpose or not, it’s a compelling and mature Howard who emerges from the lyrics and the playful genre-mash: grounded, but adventurous.
Read our recent cover story on Brittany Howard here.