Artist: Benjamin Booker
33 RPM – 1 LP Limited Blue Edition
Release: ATO Records, June, 2017
Benjamin Booker’s Witness bursts open at the seams with“Right On You”, a PRIMUS– style garage punk jam full of distorted noise. It sounds like high school angst – simple, fresh, well-paced. The fast pace blends into one of my favorite tracks of the album, “Motivation”, a slow burner that’s pure, sincere and clear. It caught me looking for answers to all the questions posed in the song.
Witness has the characteristic vocal mumbles and grumbles found on the previous album, Benjamin Booker. A couple years back, my wife and I had the opportunity to see the young Virginia-born blues-rocker in a small venue in Dortmund, Germany. As I was watched him, I felt a great sense of pride being an American in a foreign land. He melted the faces off of a crowd of less than 100 Germans, all crammed into the venue. Benjamin Booker has some moments of needed deciphering of what is being sung, and that’s needed even for a native speaker of English, let alone a crowd of Germans. His scene may have evolved from the small European cafes, but his consistent message and delivery shines through. I’m thankful for that, and had worried that this would be lost in his new release. My favorite songs of Booker’s are still those that are slow and quiet. They’re delivered like someone trying not to yell in a museum. Red in the face, whisper-screaming. Sealing a letter with a punch.
Since the release of his last breakout record (also from ATO Records), Booker moved from the US to spend 6 months in Mexico. It seems he needed a palate cleanser, after the sudden celebrity-ism, and needed a muse for his then-unwritten sophomore album. “Once you find yourself in another civilization you are forced to examine your own” (tip of the hat to James Baldwin). He had unplugged, and after a few days of solitude and Mexcal-drinking, he began to write Witness.
A few songs into the album, “The Slow Drag Under” captures moments of isolation and presents a classic blues package. Booker’s go-to guitar is the hollow-bodied Epiphone Riviera, which he takes out for a leisurely stroll on this one. It fits the vibe that the song sweats out.
“Truth is Heavy” follows with one of the more impactful guitar riffs on Witness. Reminiscent of the freak-rock epic “Slow Nerve Action” by The Flaming Lips, the guitar cuts up the background singers with a strong and prominent distorted chord. Cue: hair standing on the back of neck . From the lyrical delivery to the short and deliberate guitar chords, you quickly pick up on the emotion, and realize these songs were created for a reason. If they were sung in anyone else’s voice, they wouldn’t sound as sincere and heartfelt.
“Believe” follows with a classic gospel choir sound and finds the singer in search of something pure. The string arrangement introduces the song in the light of some classic rock ballads of the 70s, with an arrangement reminiscent of Leonard Cohen. “I just want to believe in something, I don’t care if it’s right or wrong.” There’s a recurring theme of searching throughout Witness: What are we missing? There has to be something greater than the sum of all us, right? Does the answer come with age? Booker sorts through these questions as Witness plays through.
“Overtime” struck me right on top of my head, and catches a glimpse of the singer changing between young man and adult. “No more waking up with the “What was I thinking?” Booker gutterally sings. Self-admittance is the first step, and by the time Witness ends, I got the feeling that I had just watched Benjamin Booker work through some major life questions. Not all the questions get an answer—because not all do. You can go your whole life without having some of these questions pop into your mind, and this is where the value of the album comes from. Most sophomore albums shoot for high production value, fancy new studio equipment and finding a way to sell out those stadiums. Most fall flat on their face. This is where Benjamin Booker carves out his place in Americana Music: He reflects, writes, and plays from the heart. No need to change a recipe that has been around since the birth of Blues.
The songs all blend the album into a pastiche of CNN headlines and tragic updates. Booker has a way to mash these current times into a more motivational, NOT preachy, undertone. There are moments throughout Witness we can relate to.
It took me a couple listens of Witness to realize the message may not be as topical as “Hey let’s bring it all down” but rather, “Are we just going to stand around and watch?”. The single “Witness” (featuring the ever-busy Mavis Staples) digs into a first-hand POV of someone living through life with a false fear of them attached. “Witness” is sung with Blues-drenched blood-curdling aggression and frustration. Benjamin Booker, in true form, drops the F* Bomb in front of sweet, stately Staples. There’s an old / ancient tension, and “Witness” knocks the dust off that old jean jacket and musically exposes today’s social climate.
Witness is a self-realization which has been weighing heavy on the shoulders of Benjamin Booker. There is a maturity to this album and a sense you’re learning with the artist. He cites influences for his music with The Gun Club, Blind Willie Johnson, and T. Rex. The album progresses from youth to adult through the album’s purposeful layout of song content. This content opens itself and the listener to love, rejection, fear, and personal reflection. It’s a sincere journey and a sophomore album demanding respect. Witness is a time capsule of our current social culture, and a raw event all in itself.
Other praise for Witness:
“Benjamin Booker makes retro music feel modern, reflecting on racism in America while drawing on blues, soul, and gospel.” – Pitchfork
“An urgent synthesis of blues, gospel and soul … with a raw and unforgiving candor that’s reminiscent of downtown New York punk.” – Mic
“Defiant, insightful and both intimately and communally self-actualizing” – Paste