Jaime by Brittany Howard, (2019)
Jaime: A Biomythography of Brittany Howard, By Harry Lindsey
Artist's Pronouns: She/Her
Jamie begins with a drum roll. A theatrical introduction that cascades into the opening rhythm of "History Repeats". But Brittany Howard’s first vocal expression to us is one that contradicts such a drummed-up fanfare, ‘I just don't want to be back in this place again’ she sings, ‘I mean, I done cried a little, tried a little, failed a little, I don't wanna do it again.’ At once, Brittany Howard has arrived as a solo artist, but straight away she is complicating such an arrival.
On Jaime, Howard is approaching the spotlight solo, away from her bandmates in Alabama Shakes, or the bravado of her Thunderbitch project. She is alone on record for the first time. While a debut solo album feels like a step into new artistic territory, History Repeats shows us we are being taken places Howard has been time and time again. “I've already been, I came and went, I washed my hands with it.” It appears, for Howard, Jaime is a repeating of history.
Named after her sister, Jaime is a retelling of her own experience. It is the life and loves of Brittany Howard. And the result of putting such life, history and presence into a record, leaves us with an album of extraordinarily tender and blunt expressions that hold the depth and scope of a lifetime.
After "History Repeats", we are engulfed into such a life. "He Loves Me," the first love we encounter on Jaime, nods to the heavens. Expanding beyond the physicality of a place of worship, Howard sings of moving with confidence, surrounded in a love of God that exists outside of a formal religious practice; “I know he still loves me when I’m smoking blunts, loves me when I’m drinking too much.” Feeling the love of God is a love conditioned to many. Perhaps, even a first love to many. But Howard does not let such a
love hold too much weight for long. On the next track, Georgia, we are jettisoned into a different first love.
Written and performed from “the perspective of being a little young, black gay girl, having a crush on an older, black girl”, "Georgia" begins small. Howard sings playfully, “I just want Georgia to notice me,” her voice gentle in it’s longing. Gliding over the toying hits of an organ, intensity begins to brim below the surface. Unable to contain what she really means “when I’m saying hello,” the song ascends, giving into the raw emotion of a lovestruck child. Sweeping into the now triumphant organ, "Georgia" erupts in it’s longing. By the last minute of the song, just being noticed is no longer enough. Whether it is “cool”, “unnatural” or however such a love will be perceived, the song can’t help but soar with it’s own crushing passion. It expresses the catharsis of letting a queer crush live, and it’s glorious.
Brittany Howard keeps the love soaring on "Stay High", the album’s lead single. The sunlight and giddiness of the song give it a mainstream rock and soul appeal, akin to her Alabama Shakes songs. But the light that beams from "Stay High" comes from Howard’s own excitement. “I already feel like doing it again,” Brittany sings, with a listenable grin that expresses the abundance in the love she has for her wife. She is singing in smiles about the heights only her and her wife can get to. The song floats by like an ode to queer love. Up in the clouds, away from it all, Brittany’s love is a place where “we smile and laugh and jump and clap and yell and holler and just feel great.” So simple in it’s joy, it’s impossible to not smile along with her as she soars.
Both Georgia and Stay High present love’s a-soaring. Soaring in both their potential and their reality. But Jaime is often weighed down by the reality of time. On Short & Sweet, there is a desperation in Howard clinging onto the early stages of a relationship, before “time is gonna kill it.” Before that, Tomorrow grapples with the future, wondering “now that we’re here, what we gonna do with it?” As "History Repeats" foretold, time is complicated for Brittany Howard. Much of Jaime’s songwriting takes the time to remedy such a complication. "Tomorrow" ultimately rejects the worries of the future, instead, opting for a present focus, as Brittany’s backing vocals encourage her to “Get Up, (get up)” and fix tomorrow by taking present action. Such presence is at the ideological core of Jaime.
Howard flirts with a somewhat anti-capitalist timelessness throughout Jaime, rejecting the idea that time’s movement gives way to progress or production. Instead, Howard is more interested in finding worth in the still; “by doing nothing, I noticed something” she sings on Presence. It is a reflective stance that suggests Howard’s life has been able to unfold the way it has because she took her own time with it. She is a “master student” of her own life, and she “will never be stomped out”, she tells us on "13th Century Metal", like a prophet in the telling of her own story.
Jaime’s repeating of Howard’s history feels akin to the biomythographic approach to memoir and storytelling that Audre Lorde took on her essential piece of literature Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. Described by Lorde as an “unfolding of my life and loves”, Lorde rejects a commitment to fact that memoir often attempts, and instead offers something of greater honesty. As Zami unfolds, Lorde’s telling of her life becomes an amalgamation of history, myth and biography. Lorde’s approach to telling her story proclaims she exists beyond mere fact. She is, in her own words, a "black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet," whose being will not be contained in the simplicity of a formulaic, bildungsroman narrative. Audre Lorde emerges from her own biomyth, a legend of her own making. It is hard to not see Brittany Howard emerging from Jaime in a similar light, guiding herself through her own life story.
"Goat Head" is the most explicit story detailed on the album. Beginning with a childlike description of the South, with green tomatoes and black heroes, the song takes a sudden turn when Howard asks what she really wants to know, “who slashed my dad’s tires and put a goat’s head in the bag?” The initial innocence of "Goat Head" is taken away by a violent act of racism Howard and her family experienced, “my mama was brave, to take me outside, cos mama is white, and daddy is black.” Howard is direct in the telling of this story. Here, her life does not unfold in it’s expression, but instead demands to be told in order to find answers; “I guess I’m not supposed to mind ‘cause I’m brown, I’m not black, but who said that?” In an album that expresses an understanding of oneself through a retelling of one’s history, the questions of "Goat Head," and it’s repeated refrain, suggests not all retellings of one’s story lead to clarity or peace. Some histories haunt, rather than provide a source of understanding.
Jaime concludes by looking to the future of Howard’s story. When ending on this song during her tour, she states “I know this is an odd song to end on”, expressing a knowledge of Run To Me’s warbling strangeness. But bellowing over those wavering chords, Howard sings to herself with assurance. Run To Me is a call to arms, but a calling to her own arms and the love she knows they hold. While there may not be “joy all on your own” or a “weapon against this loneliness,” Howard knows she has herself, her story, and this song to hold her. She tells her audience “I wrote this song for every time I felt odd, or strange, or left out, or anxious. I wrote this song for me.”
In an album filled with a history of life and love, Howard finishes Jaime by embracing herself. “Run to me” is a path for her to follow, no matter where her story goes next. Illuminated by her own confidence, Howard finds security in herself as a constant life force. She is the “partner” she can run to, her own pillar, her own foundation. Howard is assured that she can always return to herself to find abundance. Even if history repeats, she will always have herself to turn to. And we can turn to her Jaime too, for it is wisdom, life and love that deserves to be listened to and held within us.