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Album of the Week: Brittany Howard

After exploring Southern soul solo and with Alabama Shakes, Brittany singer and guitarist summons up Prince and the 1980s on her second album “What Now.”

As on her 2019 solo debut, Jaime, Brittany Howard delves well beyond the Southern rock bounds of her great band Alabama Shakes. The songs can feel retro at times, but not exactly like anything you’ve heard before. On What Now, a track like “I Don’t” evokes the spirit of Minnie Riperton, its disaffected lyrics (“Does anyone even care ... we don’t even laugh anymore”) contrasting the liquid soul. “Earth Sign” is a celestial slow jam, incorporating funk, soul, gospel and absolutely mad piano, as Howard’s major voice layers and swells to fill every crevice.

“Patience” rides a quicksilver R&B groove. Sultry “Prove It To You” plays with the Hi-NRG of late ‘80s Eurobeat, casting Howard as a chill diva. There are shades of Prince—an early influence for Howard—on “Power to Undo” and the nasty and glorious “Another Day,” which deals with the dichotomy of being biracial and queer in the still largely conservative South. “I believe in a world where we can go outside/ And be who we want and see who we like/ And love each other,” she sings, sounding hopeful. “I know we can do it/ ‘Cause we must do it.” At the same time, Howard has described the song as “bombastic, like the world’s on fire, but also kind of joyous because no one’s really taking it very seriously … our heads would explode if we thought about this too much.” “Red Flags” is wild verging on avant-garde; its gospel-soul is tinged with nu jazz elements and a full choir complements Howard’s impressive range. “I ran right through them red flags,” she admits, while acknowledging that hindsight can be perplexing: “Don’t let it die,” she wails on the hair-raising chorus.

That theme continues on “Samson,” with Howard “split in two” as freeform woodwind trills and floats and falls. But her mind is made up on “What Now,” an arresting evocation of ‘90s R&B (clock those boxy drums) that hurdles beyond restlessness in a relationship to the point of desperation. “I’ve been making plans that don’t include you anymore … You’re fucking up my energy/ I told the truth, so set me free,” sings Howard, who has admitted the lyrics are “brutal” but also “the truest and bluest of all the songs.” Indeed, there is an overarching idea of resisting edits. “There are times on this album when I don’t correct my voice. It’s not perfect. It’s strange sometimes. Sometimes it’s a little off,” she has said. “That’s who I am, take it or leave it.” On “To Be Still,” you can feel the static electricity, the air moving around Howard and her plaintive guitar, and the song is better for it.