Jake Blount's 'The New Faith' is a cautionary, clarifying Afrofuturist tale
Generations ago, gospel giants Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Mahalia Jackson each sang the rhetorical question, "Didn't it rain, children?" and bent time with the emphatic answers they supplied. "Just listen how it's rainin'," they urged, adopting present tense, "all day, all night." Their ebullient, imaginative readings of the scriptural event of the Great Flood testified to past divine judgment and deliverance, then plunged their congregants right into the immediacy of it, as though they were pressing their faces to the window of Noah's ark.
Jake Blount has pored over those archetypal versions of "Didn't It Rain," and discerned a different resonance in the song. The rendition he performs on The New Faith, his new album, is as rhythmically spry as its predecessors, but the guitar solos he plays are deliberately unsettling, insidious, volatile. Stretching across the recording is a harsh, high-pitched droning tone. The story he's telling predicts a day when a catastrophic flooding event, already unleashed on the world, can never be contained or trusted to permit tranquility again.
That's one chapter of the story he unfurls on this revelatory full-length, a tale of a small group of Black Americans who've survived the environmental destruction of the earth and founded a new civilization with its own mythology, creed and context for the old songs. "In my vision for these people's religion, because of what they've been through and what their ancestors have been through," Blount explained in a recent interview, "they're not going to talk about God as a force that intercedes and saves them."
The singer, arranger and multi-instrumentalist begins The New Faith's liner note essay by calling himself an "unlikely devotee." He's talking about how his queerness has complicated his relationship to Christianity, the Black church and its music, but he could just as easily be referring to the divide between the Black folk and old-time songs on which he's an expert and the fierce forward thrust of Afrofuturism, to which he adds his transformative imprint on a concept album that he's dedicated to literary luminaries Octavia Butler and N.K. Jemisin.
As performer and scholar, Blount has taken the whitewashing of folk traditions, not to mention the heteronormative lens that's been applied to them, head on. When he excelled in old-time competitions in 2017 and 2019 at a venerable festival popularly known as Clifftop, he made it an instructive moment, emphasizing that he and some of his peers brought their Blackness or queerness to that setting right alongside their musicianship, just as his first solo album, 2020's Spider Tales, excavated the buried lineages that he's proudly carrying on. That same year, Blount won the Steve Martin Banjo Prize, and on that widening platform, increased his advocacy. He joined the board of the nonprofit Bluegrass Pride and authored a Paste op-ed that dismantled a preceding piece by a white journalist who'd lumped Black roots performers together in a flattening category dubbed "Afro-Americana." Blount's sickest burn was pointing out that the other author apparently didn't know his history when it came to things like meaningful repetition in traditional Black song forms and the artificial segregation baked into the music industry from the dawn of commercial recording.
That type of work — of correcting false narratives, recovering the pioneering presence of BIPOC music-makers and, plenty often, educating white audiences about the West African roots of the banjo — could have become all-consuming labor, even for an artist with Blount's virtuosic abilities and conceptual bent, if he hadn't sought to bring more of himself to his showcasing of tradition. "Over time," he reflected, "I've gone from feeling like I'm doing the work of educating people about this stuff to feeling like I am exploring its significance to me and to other people like me, and that doesn't feel as much like labor." When he felt the precariousness of his own life and health as he endured long COVID, he plumbed the depths of spirituals and sacred blues numbers from the archives and his mind steered him toward the future. That's when he began an inquiry into the prophetic evolution and afterlife of the old songs.
Musical expressions of Afrofuturism — as modeled by Sun Ra, Labelle, Parliament-Funkadelic, Digable Planets, OutKast and their kindred and descendants — have tended toward gleaming, technologically advanced fantasies that venture well beyond the world we know. Blount is much more skeptical about the notion of technology as a relentless forward march. He writes present and future iterations of it out of his song cycle, instead recreating the low-tech hiss and distortion of early recording techniques, some from as far back as the wax cylinder era. All things digital he treats as relics of the destructive old days — the kinds of tools the survivors he envisions, who've made their way to an island off the New England coast, must do without. "I believe our most likely future bears a close resemblance to our past," he writes in the liners. "My vision of civilization's course does not involve glittering ships hurtling through the cosmos." He's invoking a historic pattern: Black Americans survive traumas that strip them of everything, then nurture their culture anew.
Blount chose a capella field recordings of spirituals as his primary source material and his unvarnished sonic template. While the unaccompanied singing of Vera Hall, Bessie Jones and Fannie Lou Hamer was ornate even in its austerity, he has ample space to fill with his instrumental arrangements. Hamer, the Southern civil rights activist and community organizer, once sang "City Called Heaven" with resolute vibrato, conveying the severity and strain of staying on the path of conviction and not allowing her vision to be obstructed. Blount adds only guttural electric guitar and the watery hissing of what could be ocean waves, but is actually an amplifier effect, which he and his co-producer Brian Slattery manipulated to the point of being unrecognizable. The two textures form a heaving pulse that batters the recording, but doesn't disturb Blount's elegant gravitas.
Elsewhere he favors rhythmic propulsion that both reflects and radically transcends familiar string band forms. Though the lyrics of "The Downward Road" paint an ominous picture of the environmental consequences of abusing power, his fiddle and banjo parts give the song a muscular churn made considerably friskier by hand drums and hand claps. That's also the first appearance on the album of the rapper Demeanor, whose verses are filled with fluent, cerebral, matter-of-fact storytelling and whose aunt is Rhiannon Giddens, co-founder of The Carolina Chocolate Drops, the band that created the template for blending Black string band and hip-hop traditions. Blount shaped his version of "Death Have Mercy" a bit like a hip-hop track, with Demeanor's dogged, poetic verses carried mostly by percussion and Mali Obomsawin's upright bass and set off by Blount's hooks. Elements of it, like the four-on-the-floor bass drum pattern, clipped falsetto harmonies and tense strings, also deliberately invoke disco. That experimentation, Blount explained, is meant to invoke "the queer, Black elements of pop music in recent history." When his circling banjo figure drops out, staccato, plucked chords materialize on one side of the mix, bounce to the other and disappear again, the combined textures suggest that the supplication is being made in a surreally chaotic environment.
During "Give Up the World," delicate clawhammer banjo and fingerstyle guitar figures nest inside each other and Blount engages in call and response with himself, reasoning with warm solemnity before echoing in a slight, plaintive voice. Demeanor takes two verses, pressing his audience to assess what's valuable about existence: "You trying to tell me that everything out here is tangible? / What about love and gravity? / What about humanity not defined by anatomy? / What about the feeling on the back of your neck when you leave a room? / Or the fact that your mama can always see through you?" Blount makes "Once There Was No Sun," initially sung by Bessie Jones as a heartening retelling of a Genesis creation narrative, into an ominous reminder that the cosmos looms over a vulnerable earth. Each time he and his chorus of accompanying voices finish worrying a line, dire strings take the spotlight, hovering and haunting, then plunge into the doom. Midway through the track, Blount introduces a counterpoint; his plucked banjo arpeggios spring forth like fragile, new life.
He's divided the album into three movements: The Psalms of the Sentinel, of the Teacher and of the Gravedigger, each transition ushered in by recitations he delivers as orator, liturgist, chronicler of an oral history belonging to a remnant who've come to revere the ruthlessness of death above any deity. In religious traditions and pop culture portrayals alike, there's a tendency to dramatize the apocalypse in vociferous, jarring fashion. Blount, though, sings and speaks from the eye of the musical storm he's cultivated with a keen and collected alertness that's riveting. He communicates how much he's seen of the extracting of resources and destruction of ecosystems; how much he's imagined about the sound of a world as far removed from him in time as the archaic sounds he's studied; how much he knows about human nature and ingenuity. To follow his voice and vision is mightily clarifying.
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.