Sweet Honey in the Rock – Love in Evolution
The twenty-plus album and Grammy honored career of Sweet Honey in the Rock revs up once more with the release of their first new studio album in nearly ten years, Love in Evolution. The uninitiated will quickly understand, seconds in perhaps, this isn’t a group concerned with chart or financial success. True artistry is hard to find in today’s marketplace, but it depends on how you define it. Only fools would dispute that there’s no artistry at all in writing three-minute pop songs, but there’s multiple levels. Sweet Honey in the Rock work in the upper reaches where their talents synthesize modern production and personal fearlessness with sweeping knowledge of the lifeblood of American music – blues, gospel, jazz, and R&B.
The opening duo of songs contrasts their approach nicely. The first, “Somebody Prayed for Me”, mines the gospel tradition for an affirmative, exhortative note of gratitude. Even the briefest of glimpses at Love in Evolution’s track listing reveals their spiritual affinities, but there’s nothing in any of these eleven songs that’s anything less than resolutely inclusive. “The Living Waters” covers similar thematic ground but incorporates added instruments that steering the song in a distinctly jazzier direction. The vocalists inhabit the plainspoken poetry with such soulful authority that even the simplest lyrics take on tremendous weight. This effect is, likewise, attributable to phrasing that abides by tradition while nevertheless soaring on the strength of its own spirit. Bluesy yearning fills “I Don’t Want No Trouble By the River” and its hopeful, if watchful, mediation on impending death never sounds over-wrought or melodramatic.
“Mercy Mercy Me” and “A Prayer for the World” are, arguably, the album’s fullest “band” efforts as the sextet opts to flush out their musical landscapes with added parts. The decision never distracts from their central role in each of the songs and, particularly in the former, has a symbiotic relationship where one strengthens the other. The extended spoken word introduction for “Mercy Mercy Me” has spot-on musical accompaniment and slides from jazzy overtones into an outright R&B groove with magical ease. “A Prayer for the World” is a much more modern track in presentation and the vocals engage with the musicians in a way not heard elsewhere on the album. It starts out in familiar territory before the other musicians enter and transform the song into a memorable, meaningful romp equal part devotional and fun.
“Same Ol’, Same Ol'” is one of the album’s strongest blues-influenced songs with assertive bass playing and a warm, intimate sound. Vocal gravitas is key to putting over this music with minimal backing support and Sweet Honey in the Rock proves up for the challenge. The album finishes out with “We Have Come This Far”, a final crystalline example of the group’s vocal mastery. This ends things on a perfect note thematically, touching on virtually every emotion invoked over the course of the previous ten songs, and strikes an elegiac note melodically while the lyrics look wearily forward to tomorrow.
Sweet Honey in the Rock can look forward to allot of things. This stellar return sets them on a possible collision course with more awards and accolades, but the laurel leaves are well deserved. Their highly entertaining music and presentation are essential to us all, but moreover, their commitment to hard truths while never surrendering their own humanity is crucial.
9 out of 10 stars.
Robert E. Fulford