“But really, I’m just enjoying life right now. I’m married with a beautiful wife. I’ve got kids. I’m just naturally in a different place now than I was when I did those other records. You have to be who you are when you do music.”
That’s what Anthony Hamilton told me in 2009 for a feature on this very website. It was over the phone and he was in Los Angeles, prepping for the Grammys — a Grammys, which, for what it’s worth, provided the Carolina crooner a prize for his work with Al Green on the song “You’ve Got The Love I Need”. He was happy. Like, really happy. So much so that the whole profile turned out to center around the dichotomy between some of his best artistic work (super sad, super lonely songs) and his everyday attitude (the feature ended with this quote: “Really, I’m just enjoying life.”).
Welp. In 2015, Anthony Hamilton got divorced. And what a difference seven years makes.
That’s not to imply he’s all broken all the time on his latest set, What I’m Feelin’. It’s just to say that if this is actually supposed to be an illustration of what the man actually is feeling these days… well, then, it’s probably safe to assume that the distance between my 2009 interview and a potential phone call in 2016 is quite the trek. It’s clear he’s been dealing with a lot, and it’s clear he still knows how to translate life’s unfortunate turns into some of life’s more compelling music.
The most blatant nod to his ex-wife, to whom he was married for about a decade, is also one of the album’s most defiant. “Walk in My Shoes” begins with of a list of the things Hamilton has lost (which includes, “almost my mind”), but then blossoms into a hook that’s just a bit provocative: “If you ever walked a mile in my shoes / You would see what I been goin’ through / I never really meant to hurt you / Just the things that I been goin’ through.” The music is classic Anthony Hamilton — smooth production, keys that float rather than fly, and a head-nod backbeat — but the words suggest a man in full-blown conflict. If he’s checking off the things he lost, and he’s so sorry for hurting anybody in the first place, then why is he challenging everyone around him to find empathy for all he’s going through?
Or, in other words, if you were the one who fucked up, man, then why are you yelling at us because we don’t feel sorry for you?
OK, that’s a bit harsh, but you get it. Such is what makes these 12 songs the most torn collection of music this guy has ever produced. It also makes for a somewhat fascinating listen. The guilt he feels pops up only vaguely and sparsely every now and then — the excellent “Ain’t No Shame” is an obvious ploy to exploit escapism all the while proving the old adage that if you really want to, you can justify anything you ever do, including life-changing mistakes — while there’s never really any indication that the other party involved in this tale of heartbreak ever did much of anything wrong.
Instead, what you get is a handful of songs about the value of finding new love. “Save Me”, perhaps the most directly non-gospel, play-for-funk up-tempo track in Hamilton’s catalog, depicts the singer already moving on. Over super-groovy synths, guitars and live drums, he pleads for only a moment of someone’s time at the end of what sounds like a fun night before asserting how he both likes his baby’s smile and wants to be born again, complete with a directive on being saved. If his previous personal life caused a ton of suffering, this opening track suggests that he’ll be feeling a whole lot better, a whole lot quicker than he might have previously planned.
The same could be said for the woman-worshipping single “Amen” and the organ-laced waltz “Take You Home”. The former, which is the best thing Anthony Hamilton has sent to radio in years, finds that sweet spot of Southern flow he became synonymous with on his 2003 breakthrough Comin’ From Where I’m From while allowing the singer to occasionally dip into preach-mode, which is where he’s historically been at his most commanding. The post-chorus falsettos also reiterate how prolific he’s always been as a vocalist, a fact often overlooked when considering his work. The latter, thanks to that trusty B3, takes you back to church under the guise of a fast-paced foxtrot impossible to sit still to. He wants his new love to join the family, and he’s not taking no for an answer.
As is the case every now and then with Hamilton’s records, the only negative marks come when he sails a little too far up the Seas of Cheese. “Never Letting Go” recalls work from earlier days, such as Soulife, when the need for accessibility trumped the need for authenticity. It’s like honestly: why the hell does a guy like this ever really need to use an acoustic guitar? “Still” isn’t nearly as egregious, but as it unfolds, you still find yourself kind of hoping that the lone backdrop of a piano might eventually evolve into something a little more substantial.
So much is forgiven, however, when you consider the aforementioned “Ain’t No Shame”. Aided by the great Gary Clark Jr.’s outrageously tasteful guitar noodling, this is what pop-blues sounds like in 2016. Swaying forward through a 6/8 time signature, Hamilton uses the song as a platform to absolve himself of the consequences that living in the moment can bring. It’s one of the few times on this record that you actually feel like the singer is going for it vocally, and it pays off thanks to his guest’s six-string. The interplay between the two makes you secretly wish for a full-album collaboration someday. It’s a chemistry that in the music industry these days is getting rarer by the Pro Tools update.
Yet still, despite the hits and the misses, the underlying theme of What I’m Feelin’ is that internal conflict. The closest we get to resolution is the final track, “Love Is an Angry Thing”, but even then, it’s hard to tell if this is a man scolding a former love or if this is a man scolding the notion of love itself. The song allows him to explore an old-school R&B ethos that he hasn’t really attacked before (and he does so successfully here), but his words leave it awfully easy to label his attitude obtuse on where, perhaps both he and his marriage failed. When he explains that he “thought I know about love / I’ve been deceived / Love don’t love nobody / Certainly not me,” it plays more like another way to be mad at something — anything — else other than himself for reasons he never completely explains.
Quite the conundrum, coming from an artist who’s made his bones being as forthright as possible about so much of his personal life in the past. For better or worse, it makes What I’m Feelin’ a layered, if not mildly mystic, collection of songs. You walk away feeling like he feels better — which is good, of course — but you just can’t fully decipher whose fault it is that he ever ended up feeling so bad in the first place. Is the fault his? Is it his ex-wife’s? Is it love’s?
We might never know. But what we can deduce, however, is that if how Anthony Hamilton is sounding these days is any indication of how he’s feeling, everything has ultimately turned out for the best.