Rhiannon Giddens Knows Herself and the Listener on You’re the One

Music Reviews Rhiannon Giddens
Rhiannon Giddens Knows Herself and the Listener on You’re the One

“If I lead, will you follow / I’ll take you way over yonder,” Rhiannon Giddens sings in “Way Over Yonder,” the penultimate song on her new record You’re the One. It’s a sweep of the arm into a space worth spending time in—but this, her clearest invitation, arrives right at the end of the record. She takes her time building up to this gesture, showing us first where she’s been.

Giddens’s last solo album was Freedom Highway in 2017. Since then, she’s made two albums with Italian composer Francesco Turrisi, most recently They’re Calling Me Home in 2021, which blended original and traditional works and explored musical traditions from backgrounds ranging across America and Europe. Most recently, her opera Omar premiered last year, a collaboration with Michael Abels based on the autobiography of Omar ibn Said—an enslaved Muslim man living in South Carolina in the 19th century. Omar premiered at Spoleto Festival USA and this May won the Pulitzer Prize for Music.

A MacArthur Fellow, Giddens has always been a skilled investigator—finding paths toward examining the past and her own emotions in tandem with equal commitment, grace and gravitas. She often pairs storytelling with a careful selection of instruments—punctuated by her studied understanding of those instruments’ interwoven histories. Her albums with Turrisi—one of many longtime collaborators who also worked on You’re the One, along with Dirk Powell, Jason Syphe and Niwel Tsumbu—incorporated her ability to bring startling new narrative implications to longstanding classics, through revelatory takes on songs like “Amazing Grace” and “Wayfaring Stranger.”

Her love of storytelling is clear in her prior projects—but also her assertion that storytelling is a matter of power. In an interview about Omar, Giddens referenced the type of harm she often strives to counteract in her work: “Our history is not being told to us.” Her musical ventures have often been driven by thoughtful exploration, research and the ability to unearth linkages between traditions that span across centuries and geographies. These formidable capabilities are sometimes balanced by playfulness, and always elevated by Giddens’s willingness to commit to the fullest level of emotional expression to help her channel her songs in the way she intends.

You’re the One shares these abilities, but finds pure emotion unfolding at the forefront. It’s a deeply fun album that beckons the listener’s attention immediately. Right away, Giddens bids good riddance to anything not serving her, swearing off a lover who’d taken her for granted in the declarative, R&B-styled “Too Little, Too Late, Too Bad.” This and the second track, the titular “You’re the One,” inspired by her love for her children, provide a kind of twinned introduction to some of the emotional drivers of this record: casting aside those whose perspectives are no longer informative to Giddens, and looking to the future by way of the present.

She has no time here for those who don’t give her credence. “You Louisiana Man” is an accusatory highlight, tempering scornful exasperation with soft ribbons of strings and background vocals; country track “If You Don’t Know How Sweet It Is” turns kicking open the door into a lively occasion that centers and celebrates the speaker’s own self. Giddens does take time to meet her lover closer to the middle in “Wrong Kind of Right,” a slow reconciliation to the feeling of having drifted away from a companion.

The most rage on the album surfaces in the electric chills of “Another Wasted Life,” inspired by Kalief Browder, who was incarcerated for three years on Rikers Island without trial. As on the rest of the record, Giddens’s vocals provide the throughline here, where a gliding high note can take a transformation from grief to skewing condemnation in one slow, gradual, ever-evolving tilt.

“Who Are You Dreaming Of” arrives in a technicolor fuzz, evoking moonlit dance halls in Giddens’s sailing vocals, ruminations of piano and wandering flutes punctuating her questions: “Are you sure that it’s not me / Who visits you so secretly?” It’s one of the only genuine junctures she alights on, in an album largely full of moments when we’re already finding her mining through decided certainty. “You’re looking through a keyhole, but I’m an open door,” she sings, “It’s no wonder you don’t see me anymore.”

Rhiannon Giddens touches nothing carelessly, and it’s true even—maybe especially—in the songs on You’re the One— which feel the most carefree and, subsequently, the most interested in encouraging a sense of abandon and movement in the listener. She’s in her element here, even when she isn’t sure what will come next—and she’s inviting us inside with her.

“Way Over Yonder,” a collaboration with Keb’ Mo’, invites the listener along on an escape of the best kind: A much-needed welcome, full of good music and better liquor, irresponsible by corporate and capitalist standards of time. This feels like the most vivid representation of the type of world Giddens is imagining throughout the whole of You’re the One, an exuberant album that feels fun, singable, danceable, self-assured from end to end and deeply American in its stories and in its excitement toward genre and instrumentation. This is a world that lives away from “the crowded streets and the long workdays,” where no one present has an interest in these things, where everyone who cares to strike out to find this new place can revel in their freedom away from the old one together.

It’s an interesting follow-up to the way the future arrives in “Yet to Be” much earlier in the album, which feels hauntingly speculative and a little more concrete and troubled in its footing. The second single is a lively back-and-forth with Jason Isbell, telling the story of two unlikely young people falling in love after growing up on opposite sides of the Atlantic. The song is cheerful and primed for dancing—and then, after the last chorus, splits away from the core of the melody we knew, a few decisive guitar strums and a quick movement of winds moving us off into a new but related direction. A spare choral arrangement guided by Giddens lifts through this new dusk to offer a coda that lends an added meaning to the whole of the story, and provides us with one of the most moving moments on the album: “In the hollow of his hand / The road is rising up to meet them.”

It’s hard to see where we need to go. Most of us are lucky to get occasional glimpses of the path that leads there. Rhiannon Giddens knows the reliable clarity that can come from looking at the past, and at the path beneath our feet: it can’t always give us the answers, but can, at the very least, help remind us of the right questions. It feels fitting that You’re the One ends with a gesture of continuation. The instrumental arrangement of traditional “Good Ol’ Cider” provides not so much a feeling of looking into the future,as it does a sense of peeking in through the open window of a party that’s already been going on for hours. We hear less than a minute of “Good Ol’ Cider,” a progression of lively strings guided along by soft, knuckle-smart percussion, fading out nearly as quickly as it emerges. Giddens gives us one last full breath of music. Like many good parties and good stories, it ends with the night air.

Laura Dzubay is a writer from Indiana. She has written about music for Consequence, The Michigan Daily and Electric Literature, and you can find her on Instagram @lauradzubay.

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