When OffBeat last checked in with then New Orleans–based rocker Benjamin Booker, he was riding high on the success of his self-titled debut album. Born from local punk shows, 2014’s Benjamin Booker was a lo-fi raucous affair, mixing punk with early rock ’n’ roll and soul ballads. However, in a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Booker revealed his subsequent struggles with anxiety, depression and violence. In late 2015 Booker was shot at and chased as he was riding his bicycle to his Bywater home. The incident, along with Booker’s frustration with the city’s inability to curb crime, led to him leaving New Orleans.
Through these hardships, Booker crafted Witness, his expansive and exposing new album. Witness is, in many ways, a natural sophomore release. A successful debut typically leads to a larger recording budget for the follow-up, and Witness’s higher production values reflect that. The sound is crisper and features more lush instrumentation, bringing in strings, keyboards, hip-hop drums, and even gospel choirs led by Mavis Staples, as heard on the title track. Booker brings the rootsiness of his debut to its next logical step, now exploring funk, gospel and soul.
What makes Witness an unconventional sophomore effort is Booker himself. While the album’s instrumentation and production signal confidence, the emphatic growl and kicking-open-the-door attitude of Booker’s debut are gone. Here, Booker sounds defeated and world-weary in both vocal performance and lyrics. “Truth Is Heavy,” a tale of running away from a meaningful connection, features a slow, methodical funk guitar riff before menacing power chords intrude into the chorus to signal impending doom as Booker sighs, “I don’t ever get this far/ By now I’m always gone.” However, by the song’s end he says “I’m trying to hold on” before those same power chords hit a more triumphant note. Sometimes trying is a victory in and of itself.
Trying can still lead to failure, as Witness is at its lyrical bleakest when the music is most sweet. “Believe” feels like a lost Sam Cooke song, with Booker even somewhat smoothing the edges of his usually raspy voice. But as the song’s gospel ballad groove and celestial strings lift the listener into the heavens, the lyrics portray a desperate speaker looking to “believe in something/ I don’t care if it’s right or wrong.” The lonely faith seeker (“I cannot make it on my own”) eventually finds his belief, but tragically discovers his inner void unfulfilled, admitting “I don’t know what I’m missing.”
Themes of misery and disillusion permeate the album until even Booker has had enough. The closing “All Was Well” is the album’s most sonically brazen and adventurous track. As the song’s futuristic funk intensifies, Booker sings that he has “made excuses all my life/ Until I believed that all was well.” In the closing moments, the brash fuzz of the guitars gives way to a warm, Radiohead-esque synth bath where Booker almost whimpers “You know this won’t be easy/ But I’m trying now/ I’m going to tear this building down.” Looking to finally break free of his inertia and depression, Booker does not suddenly offer a convenient ray of hope. Rather, he suggests that if he tears down the bad things in his life, he can perhaps finally make room for some good.