This morning I drove to work in the rain and it was a gift. It was as if nature had adjusted the lighting in my room before putting on some music for me to ponder and maybe wallow in some heartache. And that music came on in alternating fits of quiet yearning, bursts of desperation and ultimately a celebration of the misery of love. Alabama Shakes’ first album, Boys and Girls, was very simple and well done southern rock and soul. And while I was excited to hear more from them, at no point would I have expected the complexity and depth of their latest album, Sound and Color, an album that shatters any conceptions anyone may have of this band.
There’s an episode of Louis C.K.’s show, Louie, where after a beautiful, short lived relationship, Louie is depressed and talks to his neighbor, an older, eccentric doctor played by Charles Grodin about how he knew he’d be depressed but he didn’t think it would be this bad. The doctor tells him he’s an idiot because he doesn’t see how lucky he is. He explains that the misery is the best part of love. The pain of missing someone, the ache of that loss that seems to be tearing you apart from the inside with every memory: that’s the goal. The alternative is not caring, not feeling, not knowing love at all, and that is true misery. This idea is present in the beauty of this album and it is why it should be heard in the rain, or in the dark, alone, and silently, absorbing every moment Brittany Howard is laying bare for us with her gut-wrenchingly honest vocals.
The album kicks off, as it were, with the slow, lullaby-like title track which is one of the loneliest songs I’ve ever heard. The image of looking at the world outside through the window, from a distance, alone leads to the blunt confession “I want to touch a human being.” How a song this sad can make you want to hear more is a mystery that is quickly answered by “Don’t Wanna Fight,” which might be a glimpse of how this relationship ended and got us to that opening. The James Brown meets disco beat and falsetto funk of this track, however, still carries the melancholy somehow and it never really lets up at any point in the album.
The first glimpse of elation on the album comes in “Gimme All Your Love” and it comes on like a manic, desperate fit of hope in the middle of a drawn out disintegration. The best breakup albums always have these moments of wanting to fix what’s broken at any cost and the last ditch, false hope that “if you just gimme all your love” everything will be fine again. Any sense of exuberance in this song, however, is tempered by an overwhelming fog of self pity and doubt. She knows she’s lying to herself and it’s a testament to her and the band that this comes through so clearly in the music. It’s the kind of rawness you almost want to look away from.
Musically, this album is hard to pin down. Much like the emotional turmoil in the lyrics, the sounds go from quiet soul to jazz to psychedelic soul and at one point, in the intentionally sloppy “The Greatest” some boozy form of rock n roll that still manages to carry a load of anguish on it. Throughout, the production has a sense of 70s glam and while I would never have thought that sound appropriate for something like this, it works quite well.
The most straightforward break-up song on the album is “Miss You,” an old school soul, farewell to the relationship that ends on yet another attempt at pleading for a reprise from this inevitable end. By the time we get to the closer, “Over My Head” we’ve come full circle on this flashback from that lonely room at the beginning, through the entire mess of a love affair gone wrong. Thankfully, the moment where we almost sink into indifference in “Dunes” when Howard says “I don’t know whose problem it is, I don’t know whose f**k to give,” was brief. Instead, we sank into the beauty of gloom and loss and knowing that we were capable of love. And the album has reframed that first song as more of a moment of emergence, finally looking out the window after a long hibernation into yourself, and wanting to touch someone again after all the pain.
Alabama Shakes have really outdone themselves here adding a masterpiece to the long tradition of breakup albums. I’m not sure if this was intended as a concept album, but it will be hard to listen to these songs out of context. It really is a mood piece and should be heard in one sitting, all the way through. If I had to compare this to anything I might say it’s in the same emotional ballpark as Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago and musically, hell if I know. I guess it’s like some post-modernist, cubist version of classic soul? Or maybe it’s just a sonic representation of what the world looks like through a rainy window as your favorite sad song plays on the radio. Yeah, do that with this album, too.