For the new album Grace, Joe Henry collected about 70 songs for Lizz Wright to cover. She selected the ones she felt best mirrored her past and present state of consciousness. Wright took on well-known songs like “Stars Fell on Alabama” and “Southern Nights”, offered her versions of cuts by Bob Dylan and Ray Charles, went spiritual on Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Carol Jackson’s “Seems I’m Never Tired Lovin’ You” yet never lost continuity. Every song links to the others somehow.
The thread that ties the ten songs together largely can be found in Wright’s blessing of a voice and in the way Henry frames it. There is a Southern elegance to the music. One can almost touch the Spanish moss. The songs are most frequently languid and sensual. Wright imaginatively transforms familiar sounding lyrics such as “I never planned in my imagination / A situation so heavenly” into an intimate declaration of love. Sometimes her love is for the Lord or humankind in general rather than for an individual, but there is a corporal feeling even in the most spiritual songs.
The last concert reportedly attended by the Purple One before his untimely death was watching Lizz Wright perform at a Minneapolis nightclub. Prince apparently really enjoyed the show. Wright may not be the new Prince — there can only be one — but despite their stylistic differences, the two artists show the same affinity for hitching together sex and religion. One can only imagine what the two could have created together.
For Wright, the term Grace has a physicality as well as a holiness. Much of this is true of the tensions found in the chosen songs. Consider an example from the title cut composed by Rose Cousins. The lyrics are full of double entendres (i.e., “It was not my bed to make / but might have been my soul to take”). Being human unites the seeming opposites into just different aspects of the whole. Wright sings with the dignity of authenticity. Henry offers spacious, formal, mostly acoustic arrangements for her rich fibrous voice. The title of the album accurately works as a description of the whole as well as serving as the specific track. No wonder she capitalizes the record’s name as GRACE while the song’s title just begins with a capital letter followed by small case print as “Grace”. While writing in all caps expresses shouting for attention, Wright never screams. When she raises the volume, it is out of passion.
Wright co-wrote the last cut on the album with Maia Sharp, “All the Way Here”. Wright croons this tune in a lower range, which suggests seriousness. The lyrics are somewhat oblique (“love was mine to find or to follow”) if clearly personal. Wright sings “from a whisper to loud and clear”. The song proclaims the singer has found herself, and the evidence on the album reveals the general accuracy of the sentiment. But Wright also knows that self-awareness is fleeting. Taking the time to listen is in and of itself a moment of grace. One never knows what the future will bring.