Bettye LaVette: Worthy (2015; Cherry Red)
Essential Potential: A decade removed from her so-called “comeback,” the great soul singer reteams with producer Joe Henry and his crack studio band.
A lady of principle, Bettye LaVette boasts a rule of repertoire selection that neatly doubles as a life philosophy for the rest of us: She won’t give voice to any song or lay her hand to any labor that doesn’t strike her as real, or at the very least resonant with who she is as a singer, an artist, a woman, a human. And so she has developed a body of work in which every page and every chapter is rich in autobiography, despite the fact that she’s hardly penned a word of it herself. The Scene of the Crime, her 2007 collaboration with the Drive-by Truckers, is only the most explicit in its intentions, its ace song selection recapping LaVette’s own struggles as a singer and a recording artist. It’s an album about hardship, disappointment, and triumph, one in which the songs seem like they could have been written with LaVette in mind even though a quick scan of the liner notes confirms that they weren’t; anyone who has heard the album will struggle mightily to ever hear Elton and Bernie’s “Talking Old Soldiers” as anything but the confession of an embattled soul singer, so thoroughly does LaVette cast the story as her own.
It’s really a shame The Scene of the Crime has already been used as a Bettye LaVette album title, though; it would apply just as readily to Worthy, the album that reunites LaVette with producer Joe Henry. The two collaborated on I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise in 2005, and though it wasn’t Bettye LaVette’s first album or even her first good album, it was the first that people noticed. Over time, that album sounds more and more like the bursting of a dam, as LaVette has been quite a prolific recording artist ever since. Many of the subsequent albums have been noteworthy — The Scene of the Crime is as much a classic of modern soul as Henry’s Solomon Burke album, Don’t Give Up on Me — but Worthy is the best of them all, bolder and deeper and funkier than anything Bettye LaVette has yet recorded. Like Henry’s albums with Allen Toussaint and Aaron Neville, it seems a pure insight into what he does — in essence, staying out of the way while the combustible energy of a crack band manifests itself through endless revelation, reverberating from the walls of Henry’s basement studio. All the musicians get their moment to shine — Jay Bellerose’s drum fills on Dylan’s “Unbelievable,” Patrick Warren’s piano on “Stop” — but the album belongs to the mesmerizing personality at its center, LaVette dismantling songs both obscure and somewhat familiar and building them back up into something that bears her likeness and tells her story. She casts herself as both the narrator and the object of affection on the Stones’ “Complicated,” though it is frankly difficult imagining either Mick or Keith keeping pace with her. Henry gets the chance to count down his own song “Stop,” which he once performed as something aggressive and defiant; in LaVette’s hands it sounds at first like a plead and then like a dare; just try and walk away from me, she seems to suggest, with a wry grin. That song collapses into Over the Rhine’s “Undamned,” which brings a shade of vulnerability that’s new to LaVette — not quite the weariness of her “Talking Old Soldiers,” but something shot through with hopefulness and longing, at once erotic and sublime. The album is masterfully paced, “Unbelievable” rattling and rolling into a simmering “When I Was a Young Girl” and then a moody “God Bless Us All.” “Just Between You Me and the Wall You’re a Fool” shows up later as a slow blues showcase, and the most surprising and mesmerizing thing is a sparse and tender version of the Beatles’ “Wait” — sounding while it plays like it couldn’t possibly have been written for anyone but Bettye LaVette. Worthy plays like the hard-won third act of a story long unfolding — a story of survival and earned wisdom, as narrated by the woman who’s lived it.