The Servant is another stunning piece of evidence that Shelby Lynne can do pretty much anything as a singer and record-maker.
Following the genre-bursting bravura of I Am Shelby Lynne — an album so drunk on possibility it won its maker a Grammy for Best New Artist, despite being the sixth title in her discography — you might have assumed that Lynne could do just about anything. As, perhaps, she can. But if you had “bare-bones collection of gospel songs and Christian spirituals” on your Bingo card, well, you’re one step ahead of the rest of us. Either way, The Servant is certainly a welcome arrival. Released to remarkably little fanfare in the summer of 2021, The Servant rolls through 10 songs that have been passed down through folk traditions, revival meetings, and tattered Baptists hymnals, the album’s unassuming launch mirroring the modest quality of the music. Amidst standards like “Go Tell it On the Mountain” and “Wayfaring Stranger,” it’s possible that “God’s Gonna Cut You Down,” an old gem most commonly associated with Johnny Cash, is the closest The Servant comes to offering a curveball or an obscurity. But the familiarity of these songs is a feature, not a bug: The Servant isn’t about uncovering gnostic texts so much as seeking solace in the songbook that has sustained Lynne, and countless other pilgrims alongside her, for generations. The warmth and affection in her singing are palpable: For her, these songs are not just folk relics, but reservoirs of living hope and consolation.
Lynne has never before used her music for such straightforward expressions of faith and devotion, which might make The Servant feel like an apocryphal text rather than core canon. But actually, it’s not the outlier you might think it is: She’s spent a decade or more making lovely, low-key affairs with small bands of collaborators, each album impressive in its craft and appealing in its homemade feel. This one is no exception. In fact, it’s the most modest undertaking of her career: its songs feature just her voice, the unobtrusive shading of some harmony singers, simmering bass, rickety percussion, and a strummed electric guitar, vaguely reminiscent of Roebuck Staples’ resonant accompaniment. Even within this modest framework, and even with an energy level that never crests above laid-back and low-key, The Servant finds plenty of space for variety: Lynne’s “Amazing Grace” plays like a dreamy companion piece to Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World,” where “Swing Down, Sweet Chariot” is indeed a persuasive bit of swing. She brings jubilance to “Didn’t It Rain,” and soul-rattling solemnity to “God’s Gonna Cut You Down.” Like any great psalter, The Servant provides a rich vocabulary for articulating a full range of human emotions. It’s a beautiful exploration of an American folk tributary that continues to nourish and revive; and, another piece of evidence that, as a singer and a record-maker, Lynne can do pretty much anything.
Published as part of Album Roundup — September 2021 | Part 2.