Labors of life and love in Brittany Howard’s ‘Jaime’
Brittany Howard’s debut solo album, Jaime, marks a distinct artistic shift from her previous work with the Alabama Shakes. Jaime, in all its glory, is an experimental masterpiece. In these eleven tracks, Howard leads the audience through a medley of emotions and poignant life experiences, sourced directly from her own memories. Named for her sister, who passed away from cancer in her youth, Jaime is a journey through Howard’s life. Exploring a variety of themes — from racism to faith to the tribulations of love — Howard presents an authentic, powerful statement on the labors of our lives and how they shape us.
The album opens with “History Repeats,” an upbeat, flowing song with hints of jazz influence and welcome doses of R&B, hip-hop flair. The song is an energetic opening to an album that is blunt and honest about the labors of Howard’s life. The song has an element of chaos — a reference to Howard’s artistic “breaking free” as she embraces the opportunity to branch out beyond her Alabama Shakes roots. The sounds of the song seem scrambled, but repetitive lyrics work to ground the track. Howard sings, “Hoo, I don’t want to go back there again” — as the ages-old lesson goes, we must learn from our mistakes, lest the past repeat itself. Howard’s lyrics go deeper, however, suggesting that personal growth is found in moving forward; The past can hold pain of trials overcome, and the false safety of slipping back to bad habits.
Howard wastes no time or effort in her debut album, embracing from the get-go experimentation and pushing her music to the far-flung corners of constricting “genre.” The song “13th-century Metal” is one of the more adventurous tracks in Jaime, structured as a speech or chant in the form of a protest. Howard repeats over and over, “I repeat, we are all brothers and sisters,” evoking a sense of power and urgency one would find in the midst of a rally. “He Loves Me” is similar in its lyrical form, its religious undertones turning to the song into an “alternative sermon.” Howard sings of her God loving her regardless of her life choices, “I know he still loves me when / I’m smoking blunts / Loves me when I’m drinking too much.” A contrast to organized religion’s historic campaign against so-called “sinners,” in a world where the sin of the church, and the sins of reality, have reached a radical dichotomy.
What is most notable in the album, however, is how Howard approaches the concept of struggle in her songs. “Georgia” spins a tale of a young girl exploring her sexuality, having a crush on another young girl. As Howard sings “And I can’t help the way I was born to be / I ain’t no little boy,” what is emphasized is how normal the experience is. Howard doesn’t attempt to turn the song into anything more than a tale of a girlhood crush — it’s not about the fact that this girl is gay, but more so about the pivotal experience of growing up, and the pain of unrequited emotion. The “struggle” isn’t defining: It’s present, it’s there, but Howard’s music suggests that life is more than the struggle. It’s the experiences that count. People aren’t defined about all the bad in their life, and not all the good either — it’s how they have lived in totality that crafts a person from the murky clay into the person they are now.
Jaime’s many moving parts come together at the album’s climax: “Short and Sweet.” Slow, beautiful and vulnerable, Howard sings of a blooming relationship muddled by the pain of reason and pesky logic. “I may be a fool to dream of you” croons Howard, notes reminiscent of jazz greats like Ella Fitzgerald, “But, God, it feels so good to dream at all.” It’s easy to get bogged down by worries of the future, and anxiety is a familiar foe of the day-to-day. But, Howard reminds us how important it is to stay in the moment. We can’t let the lingerings of past pain, or the fear of future mistakes, bar us from living the life we have. While simple in its mechanics, the unbridled beauty of song is a beacon in an album that twists and turns through multiple experiences, styles, and structures.
In the end, Howard’s Jaime is an undoubted success, both as a debut solo work, and for it’s incredibly poignancy and emotional authenticity. Listen to Jaime first for “Short and Sweet,” a song not easily forgotten. Then again, to enjoy Howard’s masterful writing and soul-rocking tunes. It ain’t easy handling what life throws at you, but with Howard by our side, things don’t seem so dismal after all.