As much archivist as poet, Rhiannon Giddens has spent her prolific career “taking back the tools” of Black musical traditions, as scholar Francesca T. Royster writes in Black Country Music, in an effort to restore them to the American canon. Her classically trained voice and virtuosity on both minstrel and modern banjo have infused her stories—many of them historically rooted—with an urgency that pangs into the present. It’s work she has undertaken independently and collectively (with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Our Native Daughters, and through collaborative albums), and explored through multiple forms—song, ballet, opera. This boundless approach has earned Giddens a MacArthur “Genius” grant, a Pulitzer Prize, and two Grammys.
On You’re the One, Giddens’ first solo album in six years, she seems more interested in playing a variety of parts than fully inhabiting any one. Each song feels like a costume she dons for the duration of the track—and the changes are many. She’s often ventured from the shores of American folk to touch the waters of blues, soul, and gospel, but this time the shifting itself seems to be the point as Giddens stretches her reach further. Even so, You’re the One never coalesces with the clear vision or poignancy of her previous work.
Across an album of entirely original tracks, Giddens seeks livelier rhythms and finds them in the zydeco-peppered “You Louisiana Man,” the country-blues stomp “Way Over Yonder” (co-written with Keb’ Mo’), and “Hen in the Foxhouse,” where heavy percussion and prowling melodic flourishes hang like a haze. More than accelerating the tempo, Giddens seems to delight in exploring different vocal styles. There’s an element of Bonnie Raitt on the bluesy “Foxhouse,” though near the end she nimbly jetés to a jazzy scat. Elsewhere, she channels the swaggering bravado of Big Maybelle on “You Put the Sugar in My Bowl” and the coiffed pining of Ella Fitzgerald on “Who Are You Dreaming Of.” On both, her voice warbles with the weight of desire.
Given the textural complexity Giddens achieved first with T Bone Burnett (on her solo debut, 2015’s Tomorrow Is My Turn) and later with Dick Powell (on 2017’s striking Freedom Highway), the production on You’re the One feels a little too pristine. This time, Jack Splash (Alicia Keys, Solange, Valerie June) helmed the project, opting for overly polished choices that hem in Giddens’ performances. Soft strings and twinkling chimes entwine “Wrong Kind of Right,” turning the R&B lament into a middling affair, while an anodyne arrangement of guitar and drums make “If You Don’t Know How Sweet It Is” more orderly than the damning refusals Giddens issues to a badly behaved partner. The writing doesn’t help either. “I treated you like a king/Maybe that’s the reason/Soon enough you grew to think/That Christmas was all season,” Giddens sings, landing the line more like a half-hearted shove than the jab she intended.
There are signals of more interesting possibilities on “Yet to Be,” a propulsive jig featuring Jason Isbell. Its lyrics follow the love story between a Black woman and an Irish man, with Giddens’ and Isbell’s resonant voices braiding together into a physical force. Once their baby enters the narrative, the track shifts into the softest exhale, an airy flute soaring like their aspirations. “Yet to Be” shows Giddens at her best: allowing the musical textures to enliven and elaborate the story she’s telling, drawing on threads from the past to communicate a pressing immediacy that feels all her own.
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