As I sat down to write a few lines on the instantly arresting new song from Alabama Shakes, a swarm of blue-headed birds touched down on my front lawn, pressing right up against my window. Thanks, nature, for giving me a metaphor! That swarm is what this deep soul track from one of the decade's most promising young bands is all about.
It starts with a Curtis Mayfield-style guitar groove, resolutely inching its way forward. The band joins in, layering the funk; everything is cool. Then, the swarm: Brittany Howard's voice depicts it as a James Brown squeal that stops everything, pulls it around, obliterates business as usual. "My lines, your lines, don't cross them lines," she spits. She's talking about the kind of conflict that feels like it descends out of nowhere but is really following ancient patterns, like a swarm. "Why can't we both be right?" The conflict could be with a loved one, or an internal one — maybe a bad habit battling it out with some better intentions. "Lying down ain't easy when everyone needs pleasing," Howard laments as she and the band piles up layers of riffs and rhythm. Zac Cockrell's bass line paces like an angry presence trying to calm itself down. The mood is thick. The sound is full of beating wings.
By the third verse, this isn't just personal: Howard is singing about the daily strife of working people, "the constant dedication, keeping the water and power on." This is where "Don't Wanna Fight" connects with Curtis Mayfield, Betty Davis and Bobby Womack: Deep soul music shows how every social struggle is the sum of many individual ones, survived in real time. The band refocuses, laying hard into the groove, until a few screaming lines from guitarist Heath Fogg signal a push upward. Howard's voice swells, multitracked, and grows beautiful. The swarm lifts, for now.
"Don't Wanna Fight" is just a taste of what Alabama Shakes accomplish on the new album Sound & Color, to be released April 21. Produced by Blake Mills, it shows the foursome digging into music history, touching on psychedelia and punk, gospel and classic rock and more, while maintaining the zeal that instantly attracted so many listeners when the group burst forth from Athens, Alabama in 2011. This is the heart of soul music: transcendence intertwined with an unflagging sense of being in the thick of life, the sound of ordinary people heroically getting by. To live is to face the fight. To not want to fight is to live. Fly on.