Sophomore albums are the trial by which an artist determines whether or not they stay or fade away. Benjamin Booker took his time after releasing his debut in 2014 to insure he could come back kicking; in the years after he toured, spent some time in Mexico, and wrote a follow up that’s different from his debut, yet still retains his sound. The production values are top notch here and the songs are far more soulful indeed. He’s evolved, but one thing’s for sure: this is Benjamin Booker and no one else.
To elaborate, Witness has done what an old-school style artist dreams of doing, which is simultaneously creating a nod to the greats, their roots, and newer elements to make something wholly original. We can hear his unique, raspy-yet-Lennonesque voice and his incredible, overdriven blues-rock guitar work.
Starting with “Right On You” for example, Booker starts with a Beatles-lite intro and rolls through a punk chord progression, all topped off with some Rock and Roll Chuck Berry cherry riffs. This leads perfectly into the mini-ballad “Motivation”, with its slapping acoustic guitar, upfront bass, and soaring cellos that combines elements of 70’s soft rock with a John Mayer-like vocal. Like the first two tracks, the album flows relatively well together and Booker himself serves as the main connection between songs even though they switch through many different genres. The only time a song feels out of place is (ironically) the title track of the album. This has to do with the more poppy production and difference in Booker’s songwriting compared to the other songs, with “Witness” having more a modern feel, choir-heavy part, and mainly Booker’s guitar and voice put to the back then the other tracks. Although, this reviewer would like to note that the great Mavis Staples sings on that track and does a great vocal although her vocal is pushed a little too heavy to the front of the mix.
After that, the album goes with the Muscle Shoals backing of “The Slow Drag Under” which has a great southern strut to it and a Norman Greenbaum-sounding electric guitar root to keep the pace going. The “Truth Is Heavy” has a giant wall-of-sound distorted guitar to greet the choruses and urban style female vocals to accompany Booker.
This leads to the best track on Witness, which is “Believe”–a bluesy, Sam Cooke-style ballad with a great orchestral score, which this reviewer applauds. The album follows with the more upbeat and soulful “Overtime” with a great thumping, descending Stax bassline.
The last three tracks are the most genre-flipping out of all the tracks. The trio starts with “Off the Ground” that feels like a slow, Guthrie acoustic song at first but funnels itself into an almost punk diatribe with tons of energy that crashes and burns to a satisfying stop at the end. “Carry” sounds like a soul cut off of Plastic One Band with Ringo. “All Was Well” sounds like the R&B version of OK Computer-era Radiohead.
This album is proof Benjamin Booker has got what it takes to be rock star. Booker can clearly make any genre his own and we have some solid examples of that on Witness. Ironically. “Witness” may be the weakest song on the album, but with the competition on the rest of the record, it’s hard for any song to be weak in the first place. Booker has made a solid album–something this reviewer has not seen in a long time–and one that flows well together to create an experience. Don’t judge an album by the single.