Rhiannon Giddens hasn’t released a proper solo album in about six years but hasn’t slowed down. During these last few years, she’s kept busy recording collaborative albums with partner Francesco Turisi, writing an opera, getting a MacArthur “Genius Grant”, and winning a Pulitzer – the regular things one does between solo albums. If all that activity seems a bit absurd, it’s simply because Giddens’ interests remain expansive. She’s as comfortable singing on stage with an orchestra as playing banjo in a small roots group. Giddens makes as much sense as an academic and a curator as she does as a folk singer. With her new release, You’re the One, Giddens combines all these tastes and experiences to cover a remarkable swath of American music.
You’re the One covers a broad historical range of music. Giddens wrote each track, but sometimes it sounds like she’s pulling from ancient archives. Even so, the whole thing sounds new. She brought in Jack Splash, who’s worked with Kendrick Lamar and Alicia Keys, for the production. The record has a modern feel, occasionally drifting toward pop but without getting an annoying sheen. The approach works mainly because it allows the variety of music to cohere. Giddens moves from Motown studios to Appalachia farms, Southern swamp, and New York jazz clubs. Still, the album’s tone holds together, a necessary element given the stretch of the recordings.
You’re the One opens with “Too Little, Too Late, Too Bad”, a cut deliberately written as a successor to classic Aretha Franklin music. Giddens nails both the old soul and the sass, enabling the piece to stand out. It also works as a starting point, with the R&B mix of funk, rock, and more sliding easily into later numbers. Giddens’ voice makes the constant shifting easier, and if listeners would rather not unravel the musicological connections, at least the orchestrator keeps everyone in line.
“You Louisiana Man” offers one of You’re the One’s most distant forays, taking its sound from the titular state’s Zydeco music. The accordion and opening set the tone, but Giddens adds a significant element of funk, even the fiddle somehow bouncing through its lines. Zydeco (if we can keep it at least near that box) shouldn’t sit next to Motown, but Giddens’ ability to move through narrow connections creates an unlikely coherence.
For “Yet to Be”, Americana luminary Jason Isbell joins Giddens for the tale of an Irish man and a Black woman falling in love. The song acknowledges trials and complications while finding a way to optimism. It connects well with “You’re the One”, a track inspired by Giddens’ time with her infant son years ago. “Another Wasted Life” breaks away from the joy, mixing a Nina Simone influence with James Bond style to look at the corruption of our prison system. The song’s heftiness comes through, although it is one of the tracks that sits less easily within the album’s flow.
That sort of jumping fits Giddens’ current work (which comes from years of songwriting now collected and recording). She can rage against injustice – with a particular note on the word “life” making the whole thing memorable – and then turn wryly suggestive, as on “You Put the Sugar in My Bowl”. It’s all just a regular day for Giddens, who remains anything but a typical artist. You’re the One can get a little lost in its own scope, both a strength and weakness, but Giddens’ exploration of the extensive history of American music continues to be compelling and enlightening.