“Go easy on Sharon Jones.” Those words were spoken to me by my good friend Jennifer recently while we were hanging out, after I mentioned that I had the new Sharon Jones disc to review. Now, Jen wants me to go easy on Sharon because Jen is a recent breast cancer survivor and, unless you’ve been living in a cave in 2013, everyone knows that the new queen of soul had a cancer scare of her own. Jones was diagnosed with a stage one tumor in her bile duct in the middle of 2013, and the resulting treatment meant that Jones had to postpone the August release of her latest disc, Give the People What They Want, along with the requisite touring, to the New Year. The good news is that the cancer appears to have been treatable as it was caught early enough, and Jones, over the past couple of months, has risen like a phoenix from the ashes: she memorably performed during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, re-released the Christmas song “Ain’t No Chimneys in the Projects” along with a new video, and has a booking for a series of dates with Late Night With Jimmy Fallon surrounding the release of the new album. I cannot emphasis enough how happy I am that Jones has been able to transcend a rather crummy health scare, and the use of the word “crummy” is probably very underwhelming, and that she’s more or less on the road back to being in fine, first-rate form.
So now that we have Jones’ fifth studio album in our hands, a platter that was seemingly recorded and completed before Jones’ cancer emerged, critics such as me are faced with a rather daunting task. If we like the album, we might be guilty of cheerleading an artist and just being kind for the sake of being kind given the turmoil of the artist’s life these past six months or so. If we hate it, we’re guilty of kicking a stray dog while it’s down. It’s a rather precarious line to walk. So what I can say is this: Give the People What They Want does exactly that without messing too much with the neo-soul formula Jones has built her musical career on, but it adds in touches of funk and country to the proceedings in an attempt to futz with the recipe. The end result is something that seems to be rather transitional, and not as immediate as 2010’s breakthrough I Learned the Hard Way, which moved just more than 150,000 units. In fact, you have to listen to Give the People What They Want a few times to get an appreciation for what Jones and her band is doing here, and, unfortunately, there are a few more songs that are precariously close to being near duds this time around. So, while this new album is not quite as good as I Learned the Hard Way, you have to give credit to Jones to walking the line between being a crowd pleaser while trying her hand at some reinvention of her trademark sound.
It’s also a record that one can read a fair amount into about Jones’ health struggles, as unintentional as that might seem. First single “Retreat!” could be considered a call to arms against the disease Jones just fought, as much as it is a song about a woman being scorned: “Play with me, and you play with fire / I can make you pay.” And “You’ll Be Lonely” is rather morbid, given the circumstances: “You’ll be lonely / After I’m gone” is the chorus. And, of course, “People Don’t Get What They Deserve” is pretty self-explanatory in the context of discovering that you have cancer. However, Give the People What They Want is probably best enjoyed with one’s mind turned off and let the early ’70s soul rhythms wash over you. The best song on the album is also the shortest (at two minutes and 25 seconds long): “Making Up and Breaking Up”. It’s one of those songs that could have been culled from one of those Super Bad K-Tel compilations of ’60s or ’70s soul one-hit wonder nuggets. Jones gives a powerhouse vocal performance while a backing band of female singers give the song a Supremes-like sheen. Follow-up song “Get Up and Get Out” is an interesting foray into almost cosmopolitan country, and one can hear a little bit of Joe Tex percolating throughout the grooves.
However, the album is also a bit challenging: “Retreat!”, in particular, opens the album with a twisted angular guitar line that takes a few plays to really wrap your head around, and isn’t as instantly catchy or infectious as some of Jones’ past hits. You can appreciate that she’s trying to do something a little different here, by playing down the horn section, at least during the verses, that usually backs her in favour of something a bit more jaunty, but it doesn’t quite gel in the way that you’d like it to. And second song “Stranger to My Happiness” has a lurching saxophone line that feels like something out of The Addams Family, which is probably not its intent. Still, these odd hiccups aside, Give the People What They Want is a not-bad follow-up to I Learned the Hard Way, and my biggest complaint is that, at 10 songs long, this new album feels a little bit on the short side – I Learned the Hard Way is 13 tracks deep in my iTunes folder – leaving you breathlessly at the end of the record wanting to hear even more.
So, it really seems like Give the People What They Want is an album where Jones is kind of finding her way towards straddling the past and the future: she obviously wants to please her following – no doubt, as she’s likely one of the hardest working singers currently in show business, as her scintillating live shows are a testament to – but she wants to branch out a little bit and try her hand at new styles, which sometimes work and sometimes work less so. It’s unfortunate that you have to judge this album in the afterglow of the singer’s personal struggles, but it makes you hopeful for what’s coming down the pipes next and that 2013 was just an unfortunate aberration in Jones; career. I cannot help but wish the best for her and her band, and, as much as Give the People What They Want is a quasi-holding pattern and is middling in its success, hope that she can get back to doing what she does best, which just so happens to be the title of this very album.