Benjamin Booker – Witness

Album Review by Joe Goggins | 29 May 2017
  • Benjamin Booker - Witness
Album title: Witness
Artist: Benjamin Booker
Label: Rough Trade
Release date: 2 Jun

By rights, Benjamin Booker’s second record should be a blistering, caustic affair. After all, the New Orleans singer-songwriter penned most of it in Mexico, having crossed the border to work on new music last year and therefore watching his homeland's slow-motion car crash of a presidential election from the other side of a border that will eventually be manifest physically in an enormous wall, should the commander-in-chief keep his (literally) divisive promise.

Instead, Witness is a measured piece of work, the emotional heft of which only becomes apparent with repeated listens. There’s no Central American flavour to the sound of it, with the songs instead being born out of Booker’s fascination with styles of music that, in terms of their relationship to the United States, are archetypically black. The title track is anchored by a gospel choir, both Motivation and The Slow Drag Under have their bedrock in blues, and Overtime sets up its stall somewhere between r'n'b and out-and-out pop, at least in terms of its structure.

What that leaves us with is the other half of the record, on which Booker attempts to be much more stylistically ambitious. He primes us for a sparse affair in the opening minute or so of Off the Ground, before it abruptly morphs into an urgent funk-rocker, whilst Truth is Heavy is similarly indebted to groove, but plays its hand much more subtly. There’s missteps along these lines too, not least Believe, which is scored through with clumsy strings. At the centre of everything is Booker’s raspy vocal delivery, and therein lies the record’s central contradiction – the lush arrangements are lovely, but they too often threaten to suffocate that remarkably raw voice. There’s a balance to be struck, and Booker’s not quite there yet – maybe next time.

Listen to: Off the Groove, Truth is Heavy