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Benjamin Booker - Witness album review

A Mexican escape only gives the garage-blueser further blues

Cover art for Benjamin Booker - Witness album

When going off-grid to concentrate on writing a new album, most artists favour the remote cabin, the French chateau or their Hollywood mansion’s soundproofed heroin cupboard. Few would consider a couple of months necking mescal in Mexico City, but for New Orleans’ garage blues wunderkind Benjamin Booker, it had much the same effect as ferreting himself away in some rural Wisconsin weeping shed.

To whit, his second album Witness is a stripped-back, gentler creature than his acclaimed self-titled 2014 debut. Punkish basement fuzz is replaced by chamber strings, gospel choirs and crackling R&B drumbeats; his Conor Oberst quivers by a world-worn croak; his Strokesy guitar stampedes by the classic soul groove he exhibited on the first album’s Slow Coming. Can he get a witness? Sure, but it’s from the United Southern Church of Alabama Shakes rather than the Jack White Chapel of Unrest.

The dolorous tone carrying such funked-up blues as The Slow Drag Under and Truth Is Heavy may have resulted from nights spent in Mexican bars reading horrifying headlines from the US, or perhaps the racism he was subjected to there, just like back home. But Witness isn’t the sound of a man beaten down. ‘Maybe all I need is a little motivation, if I want it I can have it,’ he tells himself on string-laden Sunday morning soul slouch Motivation. Meanwhile, the title track is a roof-lifting gospel pop marvel determined to find emotional salvation in these Trump-tested times: ‘Right now we could use a little pick-me-up, seems like the whole damn nation’s trying to take us down.

If the deceptively sunny Believe finds Booker gazing into the abyss, Overtime brims with authentically crackly Northern Soul optimism and the tone trampolines on the sporadic all-out garage-pop riots dotted around. First single Right On You is a fatalistic grab at life, resembling some long-lost jam between T.Rex, Television and Neu!, while Off The Ground turns on a sixpence from a desolate piano folk ballad into a glam-fuzz teenage rampage.

The album ends with All Was Well, a two-minute firestorm of freight train rhythms, handclaps and spaceship launch noises, Booker roused from his sombre soul slouch to bawl: ‘If I have my way, I’ll tear this building down!’ like Theresa May let loose on a pensioner’s house.

It’s such plot swerves that make Booker a welcome antidote to the corny Brit soul of Sam Smith and Rag’n’Bone Man, and Witness a contemporary twist on the classic R&B revival. Hallelujah.

Mark Beaumont is a music journalist with almost three decades' experience writing for publications including Classic Rock, NME, The Guardian, The Independent, The Telegraph, The Times, Uncut and Melody Maker. He has written major biographies on Muse, Jay-Z, The Killers, Kanye West and Bon Iver and his debut novel [6666666666] is available on Kindle (opens in new tab).