Reviews

Lonnie Holley
National Freedom

(Jagjaguwar)

9/10

Those familiar with the incredible story of Lonnie Holley will know that he’s a man with scant regard for convention, and those who aren’t would need only a cursory listen to his last record, 2018’s wildly mercurial MITH, to realise that experimentation is his lifeblood. Few contemporary artists have anything like as voracious an appetite for working outside of recognised parameters as Holley, or litter their work with quite so many idiosyncrasies, but in that respect, the late Richard Swift was genuinely a kindred spirit. Accordingly, this five-track collaboration between the two feels precious.

Cut in 2014 but only now seeing the light of day, National Freedom involves the kind of stylistic slalom that Holley specialises in, finding room within its thirty-six minute span to veer from restless groove (‘Crystal Doorknob’) to wandering piano improvisation (‘So Many Rivers’) via warped dub (‘Do T Rocker’) and the occasional flirtation with pop melody (‘Like Hell Broke Away’, which plays like a scorched-earth subversion of Phil Spector’s ’60s doo-wop). The sharp sense of intuition at the heart of Swift’s production style was practically other-worldly and here, he’s knowingly hands-off, giving Holley room to meander down all manner of different sonic avenues in the knowledge that he’ll almost always return with something interesting to throw back into the pot. 

That these tracks were in the can six years ago means that Lonnie Holley couldn’t have reflected upon the many dystopian turns the world has taken since, and his oblique lyricism here is a world away from the scintillatingly political MITH, which reckoned bullishly with decades of black struggle. Still, what this EP instead offers us is another enthralling snapshot of America’s most singular bluesman, presented sumptuously and with trademark warmth by the still-peerless Swift. That, in itself, renders National Freedom essential.

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