Style: Traditional gospel, New Orleans style; compare to by Solomon Burke, Allen Toussaint, Mavis Staples
Top tracks: "Stand By Me," "Don't Let Him Ride," "Live So God Can Use You"
When Aaron Neville sings the title song from his latest album, I Know I've Been Changed, you sense that he really means it. The project is a celebration of gospel music, but also of the gospel—a myth-turned-true that has ramifications both cosmic and personal. It changed everything—the life of this singer included. It's the story of Jesus, but also of Aaron Neville. In other words, there's a lot of love on this one.
Gospel music is a good showcase for a soulful singer of Neville's class—and indeed, he brings sweetness and sensitivity, but also authority, to everything here—but one senses that he's not singing these songs just because they're there; he really means this stuff. He's singing the power of his God; he's singing his own story of redemption.
It's no big stretch to imagine these songs all coming out of a small, intimate church gathering, which is what the record often feels like: A group of singers and musicians all huddled around an upright piano, lifting their voices to the rafters. They pray to Jesus for strength and uplift ("Stand by Me"). They sing of the trials of their own spiritual sojourns in a world that's not their home ("I Am a Pilgrim"). They exhort one another to live a holy life ("Live So God Can Use You") and steer clear of the devil ("Don't Let Him Ride").
There's warmth and conviction throughout, and that's not just because of the singer or the material. This record presents a sort of homecoming for Neville; it reunites him with his old friend Allen Toussaint, who produced his very first recording and anchors the studio band here from behind the piano, providing a smooth, swinging strut that roots the music in the rich New Orleans sound from which both men emerged. (Indeed, with so many of the songs designed for comfort and encouragement, it's likely that much of the album's inspiration comes from Neville's beloved, still-struggling city.)
But it's also a step in a new direction. Neville and Toussaint recorded the album with producer Joe Henry, a stellar record-maker whose greatest gift seems to be his endless Rolodex of talented people; here he seems to throw Neville into a room with a bunch of talented musicians and simply let them do their thing. There's a sort of spare simplicity here that recalls Henry's work with Solomon Burke, albeit with the addition of a four-member gospel choir. With no frills or gimmicks in the way, the listener is immediately placed into the same room as the musicians, where there's more than enough joy and gladness to go around.
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