I recently said on Twitter that I hoped an album would come and blow me away soon, because in all honesty it’s been a slow year for top tier music in my opinion. My favorites this year are great, but they aren’t quite excellent. That same day I had told myself I would catch myself up with some albums in order to one, write about them here, and two, see if there was anything that could break this dry spell. The new album from Rhiannon Giddens did just that.
Freedom Highway is essentially a triple threat of an album in my book. Rhiannon is a naturally gifted vocalist, able to bring both power and raw emotion to the stage at all times. However, this album also proves what a natural gifted lyricist and instrumentalist she is as well.
What’s amazing about the lyrics and themes on this record is that, there’s a purpose to them. This isn’t an album specifically about Rhiannon or what she’s going through in her life in the present day – it’s an album stamped by history.
Per Giddens in the liner notes of the album,
“Know thy history. Let it horrify you; let it inspire you. Let it show you how the future can look, for nothing in this world has not come around before. These songs are based on slave narratives from the 1800s, African American experiences of the last century, and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and headlines from streets of Ferguson and Baltimore today. Voices demanding to be heard, to impart the hard-earned wisdom of a tangled, difficult, complicated history; we just try to open the door and let them through.”
I’m not entirely sure I can say it better, folks. You’ll get a sense of the actual history with songs such as Richard Farina’s “Birmingham Sunday” (a song that speaks of the 16th Street Baptist church in 1963 being bombed by members of the KKK), Mississippi John Hurt’s “The Angels Laid Him Away”, and the Staple Singers’ “Freedom Highway”, and as much as they serve to deliver the impact of the album, they’re only a few of the highlights.
More on the title track though before we move on. I have to say, the choice to end the record with a horn infused number that only gets more intense as the track wears on ends the record with an absolute bang, and in a lot of ways reminds me of Sturgill Simpson’s decision to close out his last album with “Call To Arms” on A Sailor’s Guide To Earth.
Anyway, on to the other songs. Even though this album serves to deliver an actual sense of the struggles that came with African American history, the pictures she uses to paint these examples are absolutely stunning at times. A commenter on another country blog said that the writing was on par with Jason Isbell, and while I’d also add James McMurtry into that mix, I really couldn’t say it any better myself.
Of course, while I’m not the type of blogger to sit here and tell you what every song is about, I will say that the songs are even stronger when heard than they are on paper, and that extends heavily towards the instrumentation and production here. Really, it couldn’t be anymore diverse if it wanted to be. Sometimes it’s rootsy folk like on “At The Purchaser’s Option” or the banjo driven dark murder ballad sounding (without actually being that) “Julie”. More often than not you’ll get a ton of jazz and soul influences thrown at you with some delightful horn sections such as “The Love That We Almost Had”, and “Hey Bebe”. Sometimes you get some softer, more acoustic led tracks like “Birmingham Sunday” and the album highlight “We Could Fly” which paints an absolutely beautiful picture of finding freedom after death. Heck, we even get an instance on the more funk inspired “Better Get It Right The First Time” of a rap courtesy of Rhiannon’s nephew, Justin Harrington.
The diversity is probably what delights me most about this record other than the top notch lyricism, and while it won’t be for everyone, it’s for me. I’m a sucker for songs that can match the right mood with their subject matter, and that’s essentially what Rhiannon does on each of these tracks.
The only songs I’m not quite sold on here is “Hey Bebe”. It’s fine enough as it is, but in the context of the album it just feels tacked on to allow for a moment of levity from the otherwise heavy subject material, not really detracting any value necessarily, but not really adding any value either. I think “We Could Fly” and “Baby Boy” provided a good enough balance, and overall it’s probably what’s keeping me from giving it that top grade of “A+”
However, that doesn’t mean I want to take away the fact that this is an excellent album all the same. In a lot of ways, it reminds me of Gretchen Peters’ Blackbirds from 2015 – full of darkness and despair with a rootsy tone overall, but also an album that keeps hope in the back of its mind, praying for better days and never losing its determination. Again, it won’t be a record that’s for everyone, but give it a chance. You might be surprised.