Sharon Jones went public with her battle with pancreatic cancer several years ago. Her travails became a central part of the 2015 documentary, Miss Sharon Jones, which followed her attempts to attend to her treatment while also touring and recording with the Dap-Kings. On the one-year anniversary of her death, those efforts come to life in the form of one final album: Soul of a Woman.
The mere existence of Soul of a Woman, to say nothing of its excellence, is a testament to the fortitude of all involved. It’s the group’s first LP of original material since 2014, and though most of it was recorded during the course of Jones’ illness, Soul of a Woman never points directly to what she was going through.
Throughout her career, Jones rarely cut songs that felt autobiographical in any literal sense, even though hers was a story to tell. She grew up in working class Georgia, moved to New York and worked as a corrections officer and weekend wedding singer, until finally catching a break at the age of 40. When she sang of triumph and struggle, love and heartache, those songs didn’t have to be obviously about her in order to make them relatable. Fellow soul artist Jill Scott once described soul music as “reaching and touching people on a human level.” Jones understood that as well as anyone.
When Jones and the Dap-Kings first assembled over 15 years ago, they mastered a blend of soul and funk influences drawn from years past. Over time, though, they crafted their own sonic identity out of that melange. When I hear their music today, especially the hit of their horns or the reverb draped over their guitars, I don’t hear the Motown sound or the Stax sound or the Philly sound: I hear the Dap-Kings sound.
For longtime fans, some of Soul of a Woman will play to expectation. A song like “Sail On” provides the kind of uptempo, foot-stomping verve that’s always been Jones’ bread and butter on stage. Yet surprises lurk: I’m not sure I’ve ever heard Jones sing in the pocket quite as snugly as she does on the slinky and sassy “Rumors.”
My favorite Sharon Jones songs have almost always been the ballads, including the sweeping “All Over Again” from 2005’s Naturally or the slow-burning “Window Shopping” on 2010’s I Learned the Hard Way. Soul of a Woman adds a few more gems to that list, including “Pass Me By” and the haunting “These Tears (No Longer For You).” Jones’ power to emote, the grain of her voice, add that necessary touch of pathos.
Throughout their career, Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings gave listeners something to feel with every recording and every performance. That’s still true here, at the very end.