To see Sharon Jones live is to know she’s a performer, an entertainer in every way. Her energy is infectious, and her singing never loses a step, even as she struts her way across the stage, dancing up a sweat all the way. Behind her, the Dap-Kings are as tight an outfit as there is in music today. They surely channel Stax and Muscle Shoals, but they bring a very real and very immediate vitality to their sound.
Those two things — the band’s impeccable delivery and Jones’s performance — are what made 100 Days, 100 Nights their break-out album. Jones and the band were both at the top of their game, each song as infectious and in-the-blood soulful as the last. But if that album was a performer’s album — and it was, Jones singing every minute like a woman on fire — then the new disc, I Learned the Hard Way is a singer’s record. Jones still has her fiery personality, and that woman-scorned bite, but those hard lessons seem to have settled deep in her voice on these songs. The hard rasp is sanded off a lot of these numbers, and the emotions here are subtler than previous record, but perhaps more volatile in their restraint.
On “The Game Gets Old”, the stirring opener, the Dap-Kings lay out an expansive soul haze, with horns washing over the song, and Jones gets heartbroken all over that space. She draws on each note, wondering when love will finally work out. This is the sound of exhaustion, but it’s Jones’s genius phrasing that instills a faint lining of hope in the song. Towards the end, she cuts her notes in quick punches, as if forcing joy upon herself, finding that moment where she knows she will try again, even as her heart is just healing from the last break.
Jones is, as she has been on other records, done wrong by her man plenty here. “Window Shopping” is the best blue-light number Jones has delivered yet, a slow thump in the middle of the record that manages to push past heartache and into fighting back. “Keep window shopping baby,” she insists to her man with the wandering eye. See if she cares. “You’ve let a good thing pass you by,” she tells him with a quiet confidence, even as she admits to the hurt with each lilting line on the verses.
Still, there aren’t just lessons of the heart on the new record. “Money” is a funky recession jam that’ll get get you shaking your hips at the rhythm while you shake your head at that pile of bills. “She Ain’t a Child No More” gives off the edge of a child ushered into adulthood too soon. Meanwhile, “Without a Heart” worries over a time where, according to Jones, it’d be a lot easier to not care about all the misery going around.
I Learned the Hard Way is an album very much tapped into the now. We’ve all learned some hard lessons over the past couple of years, and those big troubles are all over this record, and perhaps it’s those mentions of lean times that give the heartbreak here some perspective. Whatever the reason, Jones peels back her fire just enough to emote in quieter ways. As a result, this album — perhaps better than its three predecessors — shows her as an immensely talented singer with a genius eye for how to shape a phrase, how to pull the most out of each word.
It’s fitting that she sounds as alive as ever on the title track. She wears each mistake, each lost love, as a badge of honor. Her singing sways and dips over the verses, reliving old pains, but once she gets to the verse, each line rises as she sings. Her back-up singers snap out the title line, to which Jones responds with confident, rising lines. “You are a fool,” she insists, aiming at any number of people who wronged her, each line rising with confidence. She has washed her hands of the past, and the way she relives it on this record doesn’t feel as raw as other records, instead there’s an appreciation of that past here, the feeling of having moved on. Jones and the Dap-Kings have weathered enough storms to know that they can weather the next ones coming. And they do it here with melody, with careful turns of phrase, not with kicking up their own storm in response.
The Dap-Kings are particularly strong here, too. They don’t vary too far off the path they’ve set on past records, but there’s key moments here that make this work. As tight as they are, that sometimes can keep them restricted, walking the Stax line a little too closely sometimes. In fact, when they are up front on the instrumental “The Reason” they sound at their most tame. However, there’s also the bursts of horns that punctuate the verses on “If You Call”, and the loose, funky jangle of the guitar on “Better Things to Do”, and finally the stripped-down Sam Cooke-style thump of closer “Mama Don’t Like My Man” that keep the Dap-Kings fresh. There’s also a subtle expanse to their sound here, a bigger feel to the horns, a space between the guitars and the rhythm section that makes them feel, well, more king sized on I Learned the Hard Way.
In the end, it’s that space, the room for Jones to spread out and explore with her voice that makes this album their best yet. It’s like they figured out that they had already kicked in the door with those other records. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings already had our attention, and now they’re winning us over all the way. Hard way or not, Jones and the Dap-Kings clearly have learned over their previous three records. And those lessons they’re passing on here — though they may hold back a touch on their usual soulful punch — are lasting ones.