Benjamin Booker's followup to his durable 2014 self-titled debut album plays out as an ode to humanity. Drawing from his experiences growing up as a black man in America's South, Witness strikes an emotional chord in illustrating the charged emotions that swirl around the very real concept of systemic racism and subsequent fallout.
The New Orleans-raised Booker wields anger that frames his objections as having borne witness, interconnecting psychic pain by way of smoky R&B, gospel harmonies and hard-edged production. Witness is Booker's take on rock and blues music at its most gritty and raw, at its core a reflection on the merits of faith in a faithless universe. The singer-songwriter recently spent time in Mexico City, and uses the time to explore his connection to his American homeland and how race, racism and the tragedy of Trayvon Martin have informed his outlook on life, class and opportunity.
"Witness" pulls in illustrious singer (and civil rights activist) Mavis Staples — "Am I, am I going to be a witness?" she poses on the hook — and draws its inspiration from the late American novelist and social critic James Baldwin, who historically served as an eloquent eyewitness to the catastrophic costs of racial discord. Booker's vocal dexterity is complemented by his prowess on electric guitar: a punk vibe underscores "Right On You," a dusky groove buttresses "The Slow Drag Under," the funk of "Truth is Heavy" weaves in multiple harmonies to strong effect and seething closer "All Was Well" comes to its unfortunate, and perhaps inevitable conclusion when he sings: "If I ever had my way, I'd tear this building down."
Witness owes its imperfect existence to garage-punk, psychedelic Afro-rock and the overarching and heartbreaking sentiment that ours is a system that we might not get out from under anytime soon. (ATO Records)