It was not uncommon, in the mid-20th century, for black American artists and writers to take up more-or-less permanent residence in Europe. Jazz musicians like Bud Powell and Dexter Gordon spent years living in Paris and Copenhagen, enticed by the artistic respect and comparative lack of racial discrimination they found while touring the Continent. James Baldwin chose the expatriate life, too: He lived in Paris for a minute, finished his first novel in Switzerland, made a home in Istanbul and eventually returned to France. His experience was complicated; as much as life in the Old World afforded a certain freedom, he felt a responsibility to participate in the struggle for civil rights in the New. But at the very least, Baldwin found that living abroad offered him a salient perspective on American society. “Once you find yourself in another civilization,” he observed, “you’re forced to examine your own.”
It’s that quote that Benjamin Booker cites in the essay explaining how he came to write his new album, Witness (out June 2 on ATO Records). After the acclaim surrounding Booker’s self-titled 2014 debut ebbed, he left the country for Mexico, seeking songwriting inspiration rather than a refuge from discrimination — or so he told himself. But after experiencing racialized violence in Mexico City — and looking on from abroad as reports of police shootings and Black Lives Matter protests peppered the news — Booker realized he was fleeing, not sight-seeing, and underwent a Baldwinesque crisis. Could he in good conscience stay away from the civilization that might very well need his voice? Could he, as guest vocalist Mavis Staples sings in the album’s title track, go on being “just a witness?”
Witness is the result of that self-scrutiny, an album that follows the cathartic thunder of Booker’s debut with moody, coiled energy and a deeper dive into the music that, as it happens, soundtracked the era when Baldwin and others were taking up residence in Europe. There’s still plenty of punk’s yawp to be found here; you’ll hear it in the heart-racing opener, “Right On You,” or if you drop the needle midway through “Off The Ground.” But on this record, Booker leans especially hard into the vintage soul-rock, gospel and blues that have underpinned his work from the start, folding R&B string arrangements and gospel piano into his guitar’s gritty rampage.
While the 27-year-old songwriter has, in the past, brushed off any conscious intent to conjure a retro sound (“I was just a music lover who wondered what it would sound like if Otis Redding strapped on a guitar and played in a punk band,” he told NPR in 2015), his slate of collaborators on Witness is telling. Producer Sam Cohen recently completed a dark reworking of ‘60s hits for the Man In The High Castle companion album, Resistance Radio, while engineer Shawn Everett won a Grammy for his work with Alabama Shakes, Booker’s fellow purveyors of revived — not replicated — soul music. And, of course, there’s Staples, whose vital presence summons not just the sound but the moral compass of the civil rights movement — something, Booker suggests, this country needs now as much as ever.
Traveling alone, especially in a place where the language is unfamiliar, gives a person a lot of time to become intimately acquainted with his own habits of thought — for better or worse. Across Witness, we hear Booker embroiled in that process, his narrator analyzing his own inaction, his skepticism, his tendency to push away from relationships. “Listen, I just need some time / I don’t ever get this far / By now I’m always gone,” he rasps in a vulnerable moment in “Truth Is Heavy,” the closest thing to a love song on a record that’s constantly asserting its narrator’s alienation. That’s especially the case in “The Slow Drag Under,” where Booker’s voice sinks to a hoarse whisper as he channels paranoid thoughts that try to pull their victim below the surface. The struggle to stay afloat is a lyrical motif Booker returns to again and again: He’s less interested in how Mahalia got over, as he sings in “Overtime,” than in how to keep from going under.
In his essay, Booker recalls realizing that for much of his life, even growing up in the South, he’d convinced himself he could “outsmart racism.” But as he processed Trayvon Martin’s death, he’d begun to feel fear for his safety in a society that disproportionately harms black bodies — and, at the same time, frustration at his own “lack of effort to do anything about it.” In Witness’ final track, “All Was Well,” Booker seems to come back to those epiphanies: “Built around the truth to keep it secret / Made excuses all my life until I just believed it / Believed that all was well.” In resolving to make a change — “If I have my way / I’ll tear this building down” — he could just as easily be alluding to the edifices of his own mindset as to harmful social structures. So, yes, Benjamin Booker has examined his own civilization, and he’s found it wanting. But it’s clear that, along the way, he’s been examining himself.