Benjamin Booker 'Witness'
It’s been three years since Benjamin Booker’s explosive, punk-meets-Americana debut—three years that feel like 10 due to the way America seems to have shifted since Booker melted our faces with “Violent Shiver.”
I tend to think the nation is not as different as we imagine it, but largely the same. What’s changed is the spotlight being pointed toward our darkest impulses, our most appalling behavior—highlighting us at our most inhuman.
These are things Booker unintentionally found himself running from, when a thinly-guised expatriation to Mexico to work on his next album revealed itself to be much more. Shaken up by the seemingly unending police brutality against black Americans—including the death of Trayvon Martin which took place not too far from where Booker attended college—fear drove him down south.
“It was like every time I turned on the TV, there I was. DEAD ON THE NEWS,” he explained in an essay he wrote announcing his new album.
“I wouldn't really acknowledge it, but it was breaking me and my lack of effort to do anything about it was eating me up inside. I fled to Mexico, and for a time it worked. But, outside of Pata Negra [a bar where Booker experienced a racially-fueled confrontation], I began to feel heavy again and realized that I might never again be able to feel that weightlessness. I knew then that there was no escape and I would have to confront the problem.”
Out of this came the title track, a gospel-tinged repartee with the heavens that has Booker asking himself “Am I gonna be a witness?” The unspoken follow-up— “Is that enough?” —hanging in the air. It’s a moving track, worthy of its title spot, especially considering the addition of the legendary Mavis Staples—her authority and storied wisdom all right there in her voice.
Though “Witness” stands as the most outrightly political song, the sonic theme of gospel, old-school soul, and religious imagery permeates the album, whether Booker is talking about being a witness to history—or just a passive witness to his own life. On “Motivation” he sings “If I want it, I can have it,” over tasteful, Motown strings, urging himself to push forward, while “Truth Is Heavy”— a standout track whose skeletal, funky riffing is super-reminiscent of The Meters’ “Hand Clapping Song”—has Booker reminding his girlfriend that she “could have someone who ain’t fighting with himself regularly.” “I’m afraid I’m gonna hurt you Mary/Drag you down into the mud,” he warns her, taking time to exorcise his own demons as he contemplates the larger ones rising up around him.
As for that voice, God, I missed it. His hoarse, technically-limited, croak still has inconceivable shape-shifting abilities—heavy-lidded and sexy as hell on the fat, fuzzy, Bolan-esque “The Slow Drag Under,” breezily exuberant during the infectious bridge of the easy-groovin’ “Overtime,” and full of virile venom during “Off The Ground"—a track that offers a deceptive, acoustic intro where Booker drops the bomb, “The perk of getting older is learning how to ignore the way we feel,” then explodes into the type of punked-out, white-knuckle jam that his debut was filled with.
There’s not a bad song in the bunch, with Witness presenting itself as a kind of broken sermon—a realization that the political is in fact personal, and sharing that discovery with the world. Hearing such a talented artist make his own sense of ever-present personal and global confusion is a beautiful thing to behold, especially when the songs sound so damn good.