Lonnie Holley was born into poverty in Jim Crow Alabama 70 years ago and released his first album the same year as Death Grips. There is no other recording artist about whom that sentence could be written, just as there is no other recording artist who could have created “I Woke Up in a Fucked-Up America”, Holley’s surrealist fever-dream of a signature song and the centerpiece of his remarkable 2018 album, MITH. Listening to Holley’s winding, unclassifiable music often feels like peering into some forbidden wisdom that can’t quite be contained within the limited parameters of recorded music—which makes sense, since music was never Holley’s first language as an artist. He was, for decades, primarily known as a sculptor and visual artist; his outsider artwork has made its way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and other prestigious museums.
MITH brought Holley the most significant mainstream attention of his music career, and now he follows it with a five-song EP that, at 36 minutes, could be another full-length. Its title, National Freedom, doubles as both a reference to the place where it was recorded—late producer Richard Swift’s National Freedom studio in Oregon—as well as a theme that runs through Holley’s work, with its recurrent fixation on America’s unfulfilled promises: One wishes a song like “I’m a Suspect,” MITH’s startling meditation on racial profiling, weren’t as relevant in 2020 as it was in the racist milieu of Holley’s youth.
Yet those who came aboard with Holley’s protest songs two years ago may be disappointed to find that National Freedom does not reflect his meditations on the country’s present unrest. Instead, these songs were recorded seven years ago, during a pair of freewheeling sessions in 2013 and early 2014 (well before Swift’s 2018 death), and they illuminate a significant episode in Holley’s uncommon rise from home-cassette amatauer to Jagjaguwar-signed recording artist. (Holley had met Swift while on tour with Deerhunter shortly after releasing his first album, 2012’s Just Before Music, and the two found in each other a “cosmic connection.”)
This material finds Holley at his most abstract and elliptical, narrating mysterious tales about a crystal doorknob in the middle of a forest (“Crystal Doorknob”) or baby Moses’ journey down the Nile River (“So Many Rivers”). As usual, Holley’s voice is an untrained, warbly shadow of a croon, and his lyrics are largely improvisational glimpses of his mind. This approach works best when his band’s accompaniment brings some structure and melodic heft to counterbalance his vocal style, and that’s the case on three unusually bluesy highlights: “Crystal Doorknob,” “Like Hell Broke Away,” and “Do T Rocker.” Drawing on influences like Howlin’ Wolf and Captain Beefheart, all three bring some growly swagger to Holley’s repertoire. “Like Hell Broke Away,” which drifts and sways like a doo-wop ballad beamed down from space, is particularly excellent. Yet when he has nothing but a plinking kalimba (or three) for accompaniment, as on “In It Too Deep (Three Kalimbas),” Holley’s cosmic ruminations can be aimless and trying, bereft of groove.
National Freedom’s 11-minute climax, “So Many Rivers (The First Time),” is a meandering solo piano number that feels like a dry run for MITH’s even lengthier and fuller-sounding “I Snuck Off the Slave Ship.” (Its recording marked Holley’s first-ever time playing piano.) Over the course of the song’s impressive runtime, Holley holds forth on subjects ranging from the story of Moses to slavery, the geography of Africa, and the words of Martin Luther King. Near the end, he abandons words entirely, burbling and babbling like a body of water whose source you can’t see. You just stand and marvel at it, wondering where it’s going next.
Zach Schonfeld is a freelance writer and journalist based in New York. He contributes regularly to Paste, Pitchfork, VICE, and other publications. Previously, he was a senior writer for Newsweek. His first book comes out in November 2020.