Brittany Howard’s Sophomore Solo Album “What Now” Is a Risky Triumph

When Alabama Shakes came on the scene with their debut album Boys & Girls in 2012, Brittany Howard’s voice and her incredible stage presence propelled them to instant mainstream fame. That first album received near-universal acclaim and earned them a Best New Artist Grammy nomination. 2015’s Sound & Color was released to similar praise and earned the group three Grammy awards, including Best Alternative Music Album.

Through it all, the most common refrain in criticism about the band’s work was that Howard’s command of her voice and her guitar was the engine that not only made Alabama Shakes run but also set them apart from so many other bands working at that time. With each new release, people tried to pin down the band’s sound to no avail; they always showed up with some new sound for us to marvel at, some new heights we didn’t know they could reach.

In 2018, the band decided to go on an indefinite hiatus and Howard’s future as a musician felt uncertain. Thankfully, in 2019, she announced she would be going solo and releasing an album of all new works — one that she’d been wanting to make for a long time. Jaime, her solo debut named for her late sister, showed us a different side of Howard, both in the lyrics of the songs and in their composition. Unlike the more roots-revivalist sounds of Alabama Shakes, Jaime showcased Howard’s interest in other genres, expanding into soul, funk, jazz, noise rock, and even power pop.

The songs on Jaime addressed some of the most difficult moments and memories of Howard’s life exploring her experiences as a queer, Black woman from the South, her sister’s death, the discrimination her parents faced as a mixed race couple, and the poverty her family experienced when she was younger. Accompanying the darker subject matter, the music also gave listeners something different, often venturing into several genres at a time and taking on more psychedelic, synth-rock grooves. It was clear that without the hold of the rest of the band, Howard freed herself to think much bigger than she had before. The experimentation paid off.

Now, almost five years since that solo debut, Howard’s sophomore solo project, What Now, is once again revealing new dimensions of Howard’s talents. The genre-stacking here is different, but equally expansive, with the composition of each new song stretching out into the far away corners of Howard’s mind and musical memory. She’s not plumbing the depths of her emotional inner world in quite the same way — the songs on What Now are mostly about a relationship that went sour, the challenges of getting older, the desire for a better world, and struggling with mental illness — but that only creates more intrigue as you move from track to track. The album’s opener “Earth Sign” is a slow burner that starts out with just a few sound bowls, some light cymbals, and wavering piano chords before it bursts into an explosion of synths and heavier drum beats. It quickly acquaints you to the work Howard’s doing on this album: Not everything is how it seems and just when you begin to expect she’s going in one direction, she goes in another direction entirely.

The second track, “I Don’t,” slides in with a dreamy but dejected 60s R&B meets 2000s chipmunk-soul beat as Howard’s voice rises to meet the nostalgic feel of the rhythm. She sings, “Does anyone remember / What it felt like to laugh all night / And sleep in late / Not worry about anyone or anything? / Well, I don’t.” It becomes a blistering reminder of how painful it is to get older and have to leave the freedom of youth behind.

“Patience” takes the keyboard-laden sentimentality from “I Don’t” to new levels. Here, Howard’s keyboard composition is warped and playful as she layers her wistful vocal tracks over them and pleads with the subject of the song, “I don’t want another disaster, not with you.”  “Power to Undo” comes slowly sauntering in right after with sparse, sharp guitar licks that help guide us to a wall of 80s-tinged sound with upbeat electronic drum beats, twangy guitars, and a hard-stop vocal style that tells off the song’s target before turning back on Howard herself. Many critics (and Howard, too) have pointed to Prince as being one of Howard’s biggest influences — with some even saying she’s the only musician working whose talent and style is comparable to his — and you can see that most clearly in these two tracks. She’s building on a musical legacy that most definitely includes her.

The two tracks and short interlude that comprise the middle of the album — “To Be Still,” the interlude featuring Maya Angelou’s recitation of her poem “A Brave and Startling Truth,” and “Another Day” — are thematically disparate from much of the rest of the album but still feel at home. “To Be Still” puts Howard’s soft vocals in the foreground on their own in front of a slow guitar melody while the lyrics take us through her wandering mind as she daydreams of tranquility singing “I wanna know what it’s like to be still.” “Another Day” focuses on a broader message of our role in “freeing each other.” On it, Howard repeats, “I know we can do it (So, let’s get to it).” Like the Angelou poem that precedes it, which speaks on the urgent need for freedom and equity in our society, the lyrics and frenetic tempo of “Another Day” help expand Angelou’s message outwards and empowers us to actually get to work.

The album’s title track and “Prove It To You” are sonic departures from much of the rest of the album. “What Now” immediately blasts open with funky, syncopated drum beats and a bass line that follows right behind. It’s also one of the only tracks on the album where Howard is outwardly indignant and most vulnerable. Her voice screeches as she sings about a failed relationship: “I surrender, let me go / I don’t have love to give you more / You’re fucking up my energy / I told the truth, so set me free / If you want someone to hate, then blame it on me.” “Prove It To You” will have you wondering why Howard never ventured into the realm of house music before this album. Her swirling voice over the claps of the uptempo percussion and groovy, high-pitched synthesizers is reminiscent of some of the best mid-90s dance club tracks (think Crystal Waters, not eurodance) and would be a crowd-pleaser at any dance party. Where “What Now” is a fuming response to a relationship gone bad, “Prove It To You” is a sexy, queer club banger that begs to be made out to on the dance floor. Howard isn’t angry or in mourning here; she just wants to go home with the woman she’s been crushing on: “I’ve never been good at saying what I mean / Every time I try, it comes out incomplete / Believe me, baby / I will show you how I feel for you right now / All I wanna do is prove it to you.”

While many songs on the album are incredibly strong, “Every Color in Blue,” the album’s closing track, is its shining achievement in every aspect of songwriting and production. Imagine, if you will, what it would be like if the music of Rhythm of the Saints era Paul Simon and In Rainbows era Radiohead birthed a musical child together that had the musical attitude of Nina Simone. Meticulous guitar chords and lively, accented drum beats pour over you as a sparse trumpet soars above it all taking us straight to the revelation that is Howard’s booming voice. Sounds wild, I know, but that’s exactly what you get on “Every Color in Blue,” a song that addresses the feeling of coming down from an emotional high and settling into a depressive state. Howard opens the song with “Here comes that feeling we don’t talk about / That dull cloud coming in” and then sings in the refrain, “You don’t see my injury / You don’t see the energy it takes me / You don’t know, you don’t see.” It is easily one of the most riveting compositions of Howard’s career, and one of the most subtle and subdued songs about power and difficulty of mental illness I’ve ever heard.

By the end of What Now, it’s easy to feel as if you’ve been on a journey. Howard not only conjures, connects, and fuses multiple genres, multiple instruments, and multiple themes song after song but she also shows us what’s possible when you’re willing to take big swings and huge risks in creative work. There is so much to be felt and taken away from What Now, but the biggest accomplishment here — besides the magic of the tracks themselves — is how adventurous Howard is at every single turn.

It’s worth noting the amount of courage it takes to produce such innovative work even if that risk paid off. You can tell the album didn’t come easily to Howard, but she doesn’t cower away from doing the work necessary to push these songs forward. Instead, What Now stands out as a glistening beacon of creative freedom, control, and a belief that the work on its own is worth it.

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Stef Rubino

Stef Rubino is a writer, community organizer, and student of abolition from Ft. Lauderdale, FL. They teach Literature and writing to high schoolers and to people who are currently incarcerated, and they’re the fat half of the arts and culture podcast Fat Guy, Jacked Guy. You can find them on Twitter (unfortunately).

Stef has written 81 articles for us.

4 Comments

  1. Brittany Howard’s sophomore solo project, “What Now,” is a musical journey that transcends genres and emotions. From the funky beats of “What Now” to the sexy allure of “Prove It To You,” Howard’s album explores relationships, aging, and the desire for a better world. A standout track, “Every Color in Blue,” showcases Howard’s mastery of songwriting and production, addressing the complexities of mental illness with poignant lyrics and captivating instrumentation.

    This album represents Howard’s fearless creativity, taking risks that result in a riveting and adventurous musical experience. The courage to blend diverse sounds and themes, combined with the dedication to push creative boundaries, makes “What Now” a beacon of innovation in Howard’s career. For those seeking a bold and eclectic musical journey, Brittany Howard’s “What Now” is a must-listen. Explore the magic of this album on Spotify
    for an immersive experience. 🎶 #BrittanyHoward #WhatNowAlbum #MusicalInnovation #SpotifySounds

  2. Stef your reviews are always so through and evocative, thank you! I am/was a HUGE Alabama Shakes fan but kind of fell off following Brittany Howard’s solo career after feeling lukewarm about Jaime… but this review is inspiring me to revisit her work. Can’t wait to check it out!

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