Throughout 2020, I will be writing, at length, about my favorite albums of the decade. This is an extension of an initial five-part series.
I haven’t maintained a set schedule for this series, but when past conversations remain relevant in the present day, some selections just ring as more timely than others.
As such, revisiting Rhiannon Giddens’ Freedom Highway held an even greater impact for me than it did in 2017, and while the conversation was important then, it’s amplified in 2020. For a solo sophomore effort, too, it’s especially ambitious for the former Carolina Chocolate Drops member.
There’s a difference in examining how Giddens approaches her art compared to others. Her works stand as historical narratives, where instead of the album framing the larger conversation (as they typically do in these critical reviews), the conversation frames the album. Freedom Highway, then, is the story of racism and oppression in American through the perspectives of black men and women, past and present.
Granted, it’s not a concept album in the sense of one song bleeding into the next, but whether it’s an old-time slave narrative, a song pulled from the Civil Rights era or a modern day example of racism, there is a cohesiveness to the stories told here. It pulls no punches, either, especially when it opens with “At The Purchaser’s Option” – an account of a slave woman raped by her oppressor and now forced to watch as she’s sold to a new owner with only the option of including the newborn infant with the purchase. It’s as damning of a note of privilege as “Julie” is later on, where a slave goes out of his way to protect his white mistress from the danger ahead, but finds the love unrequited and ultimately is betrayed. The sad irony, though, is that Giddens’ tone – at least through this character – is nonchalant, because that “twist” was expected all along anyway. I’d make a similar case for “The Love We Almost Had,” one of few songs here to stand independent of the larger narrative, but ultimately still important to the discussion – where a woman is left to just imagine the life she could have had with someone. On its own, it’s a story of heartache; here, it’s a damning indictment of the life this woman “just had to get used to,” hence the frank, bitter tone.
Again, though, the larger point is to show how that oppression is still apparent today. It’s why “Better Get It Right The First Time” is the centerpoint of the project – a reminder for this black man to act “just the right way” so as not to draw too much attention, even though he gets gunned down and becomes another victim of police brutality anyway. And while Giddens’ nephew, Justin Harrington, furiously raps on the bridge to convey that frustration, Giddens’ chant of the title only grows louder and louder. Couple that, too, with the fact that it comes right after Richard Farina’s “Birmingham Sunday” in the track list – an account of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, in which the KKK killed four girls and 22 others.
All of this is to say that, yes, it’s a heavy album. But as an album, it’s not without its moments of levity, either; moments that, in turn, inspire hope and optimism to fight. To once again mention sequencing, it’s nice to hear “We Could Fly” after “Better It Get Right The First Time,” if only for its relentless hope for a better tomorrow, even in the face of oppression and death. That, then, is followed by “Hey Bebe,” a wonderful track, musically, but not a standout, either, truthfully.
But by the time it gets to “Baby Boy,” it’s a solemn note on how we all wish the best for the next generation, even if it’s hard to hold out hope; it’s one thing to fight for what you believe in, for instance, but the entire point of that is so that children can live in a better tomorrow, and we can never say for sure if that’ll be true. I’ve seen some critics say the title track cover should have come earlier on the album, but here, as a closer, it’s perfect – an electrifying battle cry that only gains more tension as it progresses, because the fight doesn’t stop once the album does.
Of course, that’s also a note on how, because Freedom Highway tells its story through the album concept, the music has to be top-notch.
And it is.
It should come as no surprise that it’s an ultimate melting pot of styles spanning folk, jazz, rap, soul, bluegrass and more. The low-simmering banjo adds a simmering tension to “At The Purchaser’s Option,” and when combined with Giddens’ increased frustration as she sings the “they can take my body but not my soul” hook, it’s a bold opener. The same can be said for the funk-inspired “Better Get It Right The First Time,” or the minor, sweeping darkness permeating “Baby Boy.” Again, like with lyrics, there’s moments of levity in some fashion. There’s a quiet grace to the acoustics and Giddens’ performance on “The Angels Laid Him Away” to honor a man’s death, and I love the burnished textures of “We Could Fly” to give it a similar effect.
At any rate, though, it all centers back to the narrative, which is excellently conceived and executed. The fight continues, and it’s still in the beginning stages.