Songs for Mother Universe: Lonnie Holley’s New Album MITH

By September 21, 2018
The cover of Holley’s new album MITH. (Photo: Tim Duffy)

Last February, I met artist and musician Lonnie Holley at Atlanta Contemporary during the run of his solo exhibition “I Snuck Off the Slave Ship.” During a walkthrough of the show with the artist and visiting critic Ben Davis of artnet NewsHolley asked me what I did, wondering if I was an artist or a musician. When I told him I was a writer, he turned to me, finger pointing emphatically, and said, “That means you have to tell the TRUTH!” It was like being struck by lightening or hearing the words of a prophet.

Holley’s third album, MITH, was released today. The album’s centerpiece is a  nearly eighteen-minute-long song also called “I Snuck Off the Slave Ship.” For  BURNAWAY, I invited curator Daniel Fuller, who organized the exhibition of the same name at Atlanta Contemporary last year, to reflect on Holley’s new album. 

— Logan Lockner

Just yesterday I was visiting a friend’s studio and he said that these days all he wants to do is stare at the plants in his studio and listen to Laura Nyro—so he made a drawing of his plants and added the singer’s name to the top and lower corners. His joy barely fits on the paper.

To echo my friend, all I want to do is stare up at the sky and listen to Lonnie Holley. Here in Atlanta, this seductively full blue sky is sitting still, waiting. It is an intensely solitary vista without a right or wrong place to settle the eye, and here is Holley belting out, “I snuck off the slave ship, just to sneak on another.” He rumbles and grumbles, as if pushing through the eye of the storm, about shedding the chains that bind an entire mentality. He is singing for the many who never had the ability to soar, to want more. Holley is a lonesome storyteller who has traveled out of our deepest fears as Americans and endured the consequences of our bottomless sins. His raucously delivered stream-of-consciousness lyrics act like a battering ram against our apathy and complacency.

Holley’s new album MITH is his first on the indie rock label Jagjaguwar. These ten tracks feel more refined than past offerings, featuring big band horns spitting and spinning, droney drums, and, of course, Holley’s twinkling piano playing (only on the black keys) throughout.

The songs are thick and righteous and incredibly giving. When Holley is feeling good, it is as if there is barely enough oxygen in the room for all of us. Together we circle, spin, and grin through fiery blasts of carnivalesque noise. His chants clatter along as we do handstands in his shadow. When he has the blues, our ears lean in; we are together.

Images of Holley’s artwork included in the liner notes for MITH.

In the past, he has offered us kisses of truth and hopeful embraces, but this time around Holley seems invigorated by excruciating rage. His music and visual art have continually put faith in the abilities of its listeners and viewers to learn from each other and treat each other more kindly. To be better to each other. MITH unleashes a lurking fear that we won’t. Uncompromising songs like I Snuck Off the Slave Ship and I Woke Up in a Fucked-Up America aren’t asking us to listen. They are sonic hammers demanding our attention. With 68 years of harsh realities behind him, Holley is not interested in our apprehension. He is Alabama. He is living American history. Against all odds, he escaped, flew far away, and then he came back for us.

As the sky fades toward night, I rewind the album back to its second track, Back for Me, which is a perfect send-off.  The song is a plea for the listener to stay close, to be by Holley’s side when his time comes to an end. It’s a twilight epiphany, a spiritual odyssey; Holley’s restless lyrics dig deep in the human soul. Holley has provided us with a lifetime of gifts, and now he asks this one indulgence from us.

The album is sustained by electrified energies that stand you up and set you back down again. It’s clichéd to say this in these divided times, but seldom do we receive this kind of authentic hunger and conviction in a work that feels so urgently of the moment. It’s no longer day and not yet night; we must sit here with the music in the twilight air, allowing Holley’s cries for truth and love to reverberate.

My rating: two thumbs up high for Mother Universe.

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