In every artistic discipline, there are folks who seem to live and die for the beam of a spotlight. After years of grinding in obscurity and finally finding a measure of success (awards, peer acceptance, box office or SoundScan/iTunes tallies), no career zenith apparently matters more than saturating the media and airwaves as constantly and relentlessly as possible. And because there's no such thing as 'time off,' 'winding down' or 'toasting it up,' those types of entertainers will grind until they're only shreds of their former selves, even when their work suffers and audiences shrink because there never seems to be time to replenish, refocus or renew.
Thankfully, however, that hasn't been the case for India.Arie. With her acoustically-rendered R&B and heartfelt lyrics delivered in that distinctive, velvety alto, the 37-year-old Colorado native hit the ground running with her debut Acoustic Soul, garnering an enthusiastic fanbase, millions in sales and a pair of Grammys that stood in testament to the power of her gifts.
But when the musical machine began to overwhelm Ms. Simpson (as witnessed by the lackluster reception to 2009's ambitious, yet underperforming Testimony: Vol. 2, Love & Politics), she started to re-assess her goals altogether. The result of that self-imposed hiatus, Songversation, makes India.Arie's fifth studio CD all that her fans will probably expect: the wisdom of womanhood, the polish of an industry vet and unbridled optimism of the re-purposed and newly-recharged.
With the exception of a remake (the effective and evocative reimagining of "Strange Fruit"), practically every song was co-written by India and features the additional assistance of longtime collaborator Shannon Sanders as well as other songwriters like David Ryan Harris and Michael Huff. The inclusion of a decidely Turkish influence in the strings and percussion may surprise listeners, but that warm, dusky singing style that we've come to love and anticipate from Lady Arie never left, as heard in the self-cheerleading uptempo, "Just Do You," the gentle and regaling tribute, "Cocoa Butter" ("I show you all my burns, you show me lessons learned/ I show you all my scars, you show me works of art.") and the downright catchy, James Brown-sampling humankind anthem, "Brother's Keeper": "Can I tend to his needs when he's down on his knees/can I still see the light in his eyes? Can I lend him a hand, let him still be a man/will I run, or stand by his side?"
Love in its many forms is expressed here in totality: if she isn't embracing the monolith of the human condition ("One"), expressing gratitude to the ones down for the cause ("Thank You") or gushing to her heart's desire ("Nothing I Love More"), she's telling those dear to her how profoundly they've affected her life (the sweet soliliquy "Flowers") and sharing what Cicely Tyson impressed upon her in the layered and lilting ballad, "Break The Shell": "Child, it's time to break the shell, life's gonna hurt but it's meant to be felt/you cannot touch the sky from inside yourself, you cannot fly until you break the shell."
As evolved as Lady Arie has become, she doesn't pretend to be flawless, omniscient or even totally content, but that allows for moments of richness as well: "This Love" describes all that she is and all that she can offer to her man and to life itself: "(This love) will have glory, (this love) will have shame/...(This love) at times will triumph, (this love) at times will fail/It can be heaven, or it can be hell." It's refreshing to hear an artist spill her heart's contents and life's musings with such clarity and strength, especially when it's expressed like a musical mission statement via the sparsely-arranged and nearly-whispered "Life I Know": "All my friends are having families if their own, I'm still waiting for the perfect one to come/Almost four decades in and if I'm blessed then I've got five more to go, and that's just the life I know."
India.Arie could've used her impressive roster to coast on the vapors of past achievements and keep the checks coming in. But luckily for us, Ms. Simpson opted for personal and artistic fulfillment and, by default, shares some of her most illuminating works in years. For those ready for the replenishment of experiencing a performer still willing to take risks instead of simply get rich, Songversations is a triumphant return that will bolster her fanbase and finally offers up the exchange that they've been waiting for years to have. Enthusiastically recommended.
By Melody Charles