Benjamin Booker’s 2014 debut album was a blast of energizing, hip shaking rock and roll. On Witness his follow-up, Booker expands his sound, searches for new muses and struggles to sound grand. There are growing pains to be sure, but pleasant ones that prove the artist is not trying to be pigeonholed as a retro-blues one trickster as he experiments with soul, gospel and discussing larger societal/personal problems.
Opener “Right On You” is the closest he returns to his original sound but even here he increases the electronic bells and whistles and shows off his noticeably gruffer singing voice. “Motivation” stays mostly acoustic and calls to mind a raw Jack Johnson with its upbeat strums and dull lyrics before Booker moves on to the album’s title track.
It is clear throughout this disk that Booker is injecting a gospel sense of something greater, while admirable most of the tracks don’t have the lyrical weight, musical engagement or the combo of the two to elevate the overall effort. The title track certainly draws listeners in with gorgeous pianos and backing vocals from legend Mavis Staples, but when it is Booker’s turn to vocalize, his half rap half talking blues about cultural crimes doesn’t fit snugly.
The same issue weighs down “The Slow Drag Under” as Booker is wrestling with his isolation (racial, cultural, personal, etc) but the effort never escalates beyond a riff and one thought. On the flipside, a track such as “Truth Is Heavy” plays much better, it feels confessional around a distilled banjo with a grooving backwoods beat that is intoxicating and an album highlight.
“Believe” continues the positive vibrations and amps up the drama via honesty, violins and a swirling soul progression. “Overtime” also reaps the benefits of Booker’s expanded sound with its slow rhythmic trance mixed with a well-placed fuzz guitar. These three excellent tracks prove Booker and company can take this sound to high levels as closer “All Was Well” picks back up the punk-ish energy, tying it back to the album opener.
Booker hasn’t come full circle by any means and Witness falls into the classic 2nd album trap that many rock and rollers deal with. Do you repeat what made you successful with your first disk (like The Strokes) or do you expand your horizons and take some risks (like The Alabama Shakes). His choice to musically experiment while taking lyrical stances on cultural issues such as racism, police brutality and more bodes well for future efforts from this obvious talent.