War In My Mind
Provogue Records - 2019
There are times when I listen to music that I can have a million things going on around me and I can focus on all of it at the same time. But that is just not the case when it comes time to listen to a new Beth Hart album. There is something so blazingly pure that I find in her music that when I open the plastic wrapping enclosing the album for that first spin of the CD, I block out all other distractions and just focus on what invariably ends up being a musical experience of the first order.
After listening to War In My Mind, all I can say is that this experience has once again repeated itself. Look, my fandom for Beth's music is one of the universe's worst kept secrets. But that only means I have to be more on my guard when writing about said music. I don't want to be biased in my writing, but instead provide an honest assessment of the songs she sings. But it is just one of life's lucky mysteries that my fandom and the high quality of her music always seems to coincide just perfectly.
The album opens with a rocking up-tempo "Bad Woman Blues". The bluesy swinging vibe from the music and Hart's singing of some powerfully killer lyrics get things off to a hugely energetic start.
Of course, despite the fact that I particularly enjoyed the song, that is just the appetizer. Between various up-tempo numbers comes a bevy of piano based/driven material that finds Beth Hart mining (on her own or with co-writers) an ever growing emotional minefield to bring out feelings in the listener that they might not really experience on a regular basis.
Songs like the title track are made more dramatic in their presentation because they are so keyed to playing off the piano Hart plays. There's a couple of brief upsweeps in the song's musical component but for the most part, it is a piano showcase. And the song is so much better for it.
Then you have songs like "Without Words In The Way" and "Sister Dear". They are also playing off the piano foundation first and foremost but Hart's vocals and the song lyrics help bring out more of that emotional depth. When a choir is added in on "Let It Grow", it gives another level of dramatic heft to the track especially when you write lines like "In every heart there's a seed with a promise of hope."
Of course, it isn't all just songs of searching and feeling. There's songs that are just the kind of release of bursts of fun and energy. The kind of jazzy swing of Hart's vocals on "Try A Little Harder" is a quick stepping ball of adrenalized grit.
You've got a heated atmosphere provided by the faster paced "Spanish Lullabies". I love the chorus in this one and the brief classical guitar solo makes for a nice twist in the musical mix. "Sugar Shack" has a sense of playfulness in the performance that gives the song a real sense of immediacy to it.
The best part of the album is in how the track listing is arranged to provide peaks and valleys in terms of song styles. You get roused by the rocking songs and you feel the same sense of contemplation with the more deliberately paced numbers. The song "Woman Down" conveys (at least to me) a sense of regret in the lyrics. I'll admit that I am not sure I can put my finger on why I was given to that feeling but it works for me. It also has one of the killer lyrics on the album with the line "pennies of pain become the rain". That one just struck me like a lightning bolt.
Hart's look at the good things in her life is given voice in "Thankful". The best thing is how her thoughts can serve as yours as you listen. As a counterpoint, the emotional devastation that is evoked by "I Need A Hero" kills you. I don't know how she does it but through lyrics and the performance she puts forth, Hart someone always manages to dredge up my ability to feel the same kind of emotions she's singing about in her music.
I should briefly mention that I bought the limited edition box set version of War In My Mind release. It provides two live bonus cuts from Hart's previous album Fire on the Floor, "Love Gangster" and the title track. They are fine but don't add or subtract to the regular track listing for War In My Mind. The box set includes a couple of Beth Hart-themed coasters, postcards and stickers.
To sum up what I thought of this latest amazing album from Beth Hart, I think back to the 1984 song by melodic rockers Survivor. In their song "It's The Singer, Not The Song", vocalist Jimi Jamison sang the line, "When there's magic in the music, it's the singer not the song".
If that is to be taken at face value, the expression doesn't quite go far enough. There's a weird kind of alchemy that happens when I listen to Beth's music as a whole, and it is once again demonstrated on War In My Mind. She is obviously adept at mining her own life experiences and turning them into works of art. But what makes this an even more powerful and passionate experience is that her work is capable of a transference from her to her fans. In my own personal experience, Beth's songs always seem to become my own in such a way that I've been trying to understand why they hit home with me so much for years. I never know what to expect on this music journey with Beth Hart. However, I know that I not only look forward to each new path she takes but feel that I'm on that same path alongside her.
War on My Mind is the latest outstanding musical expression from the brilliance of Beth Hart and it is the kind of music that transcends whatever stylistic boundaries you might set for yourself as a listener. Music as art...as the late baseball commentator Mel Allen used to say, "How about that?"