While it’s never been unusual to see musicians and artists responding to global issues of a political, social or religious nature in their work, there’s no denying these reactions have become more frequent and more varied in the last few years. From Kendrick’s To Pimp A Butterfly to the string of anti-Trump singles under the 30 Days, 30 Songs compilation, voices in America particularly have been seriously raised in response to some of the country’s deepest problems. Enter then, Benjamin Booker’s Witness, the follow up to his 2014 debut and Booker’s response to being young and Black in the Southern U.S and, while it’s a solid if rather brief record, it doesn’t quite manage to match the energy of his first full length effort.
The ten tracks that make up Witness came together after a solitary trip Booker took to Mexico late last year. Armed only with a nylon string guitar and the feeling that he was “a songwriter with no songs”, it’s surprising how instrumentally diverse most of the tracks actually are; adding stylish strings and piano backing to the rhythm and blues foundations. Opener Right On You sticks firmly to its guns though, and starts the record off to the sound thunderous garage punk that wouldn’t have seemed out of place on Booker’s debut. Motivation on the other hand takes things immediately down a few notches, but the change feels appropriate even this early in the album. A shuffling drum and bass groove pins the slow strings and relaxed acoustic guitar strums down while the amped up guitar breaks through for a few bluesy licks here and there, doused in vibrato. Booker himself deals with his songwriter’s block in the lyrics pretty explicitly, his hoarse, half whispered refrain of “If I want it I can have it” in the chorus plays into the record’s dilemma of being a bystander when all you need to do is act. Title track and lead single Witness repeats this mantra with Mavis Staples’ vocal hook echoing the question “Am I gonna be a witness?” alongside gospel backing singers and distant piano; something Booker himself when discussing the album followed up with “And is that enough?”. It brings to mind the revamped soul of Charles Bradley’s recent output and deals with some of the album’s big talking points in the verses (namely police brutality), while the sombre chorus makes for a strong centrepiece to the album.
The Slow Drag Under plays with the traditional twelve-bar blues in a sort of Brothers-era Black Keys kind of way with a dark bar room bassline and stabs of fuzzy guitar; sultry and slow burning in equal measure. Following cut Truth Is Heavy deals in unrequited love, with Booker’s guitar taking on a percussive tone with a single fingerpicked riff reverberating off the head bobbing hi-hat and snare pattern. But it’s on Believe, also a single, that we get a half-time highlight. The Hollywood strings of the intro sound akin to Etta James’ At Last as they give way to what is a heartfelt and sweeping soul ballad. The beat is typically rocksteady as Booker’s vocal seems to flirt with all-out crooning, singing “I’ve got dreams I can touch / I give them everything to keep from going under”. Stylish and elegantly assembled it’s almost definitely the best track on offer here.
It is a shame then that the last half of the album falls flat in keeping any momentum going. Overtime is another standard neo-soul number that has some pleasant backing vocals in the verses and choruses but little else to really make it stand apart. Off The Ground sparks a moment of adrenaline after the slow, acoustic start of just piano, guitar and vocals when, after the minute mark it erupts into another garage rock explosion. As Booker growls “Hallelujah, we’re off the ground!”, for ninety seconds the track does indeed fly, but burns out a bit too quickly to be consequential. Penultimately there’s Carry, in which Booker laments his position as a witness to some things and a wrongdoer in others. It’s introspective and the slightly sour piano chords bring the melancholy of the album to the surface. It would be a good place to finish, and that makes All Was Well- last song proper- stick out like a sore thumb even more. The inclusion of synths out of nowhere in a frantic and tense electro-rock song that blooms into the closing, quavering lyric “I’m gonna tear this building down” just feels odd; not a deal breaker but at less than two minutes it’s far from a conclusive end to all the issues Booker’s just been wrestling with, but maybe that’s the point, without a solution in sight there equally isn’t an end.
Let me make sure that anyone who enjoys blues, soul or classic R&B doesn’t leave this review thinking Witness isn’t worth their time because it definitely is. The production throughout might be a marked change from Booker’s debut but the richer palette of instruments is given a good deal of attention and none of the individual parts feel undernourished as a result. Instead it’s the songs themselves that bring the album down a peg; ironic since the themes are both massive and prevalent to just about anyone listening. As mentioned at the start, a lot of artists have tackled these issues in their music recently and ultimately Booker’s take on them failed to ignite much of a burning anger or passion after listening, they just left me feeling lukewarm.