These are timeless voices. The quartet Sweet Honey in the Rock, an a cappella group occasionally augmenting their tracks with instrumentation, are an award winning unit, social activists, and have a recorded legacy stretching over fifteen albums. Their twentieth release and first studio effort in nine years, Love in Evolution, pursues many of the same thematic and musical ends as the band’s earlier releases, but this is a musical group whose artistic voice emerges from somewhere much deeper than sales charts, awards shows, and Saturday Night Live spots. Their sweep extends over the vast expanse of the American Songbook while their subject matter unfailingly invokes the complicated array of modern experiences many face with a quiet equanimity of spirit and an unflappable thirst for justice. Love in Evolution is music written and recorded to withstand the test of time.
Much of the album is devoted to gospel oriented material. Tracks like the opening trio of “Somebody Prayed for Me”, “I Don’t Want No Trouble at the River”, and “The Living Waters” clearly reference the gospel tradition, freely drawing from imagery and musical tropes alike. None of the tracks, however, are paint by numbers. Sweet Honey in the Rock re-imagines these songs in such a way that it revitalizes their eternal truths without ever browbeating listeners with dogma. Later tracks “A Prayer for the World”, “Wholly Holy”, and “Operator/Jesus Is on the Mainline” dive deep into the same blue gospel waters with similar success.
Love in Evolution isn’t a strictly solemn, pious affair. The lively arrangements aren’t geared for distracting listeners from the quartet, but there’s a sense of musical adventure thanks to the album’s unpredictability. If one assumes Sweet Honey in the Rock is content with recording a straight cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy Mercy Me”, you couldn’t be more mistaken. It’s perhaps one of the album’s finest moments. They show a penchant for contemporary humor with the song title “IDK, but I’m LOL” but the lyrics eschew gimmickry in favor of a life-affirming, wise text delivered with great verve and a dollop of playfulness.
The album’s aching vulnerability is another key factor in its ultimate impact. It will be difficult to walk away unaffected after hearing Love in Evolution. Complimentary marriages between singer and lyric are important ingredients in what makes a memorable song, but committed singers add extra punch to elevate even above average material higher. “Second Line Blues” is an ideal example of this. The group sings over a sketched out musical backdrop, but the minimalist backing provides a forum for a weary blues chronicling many names lost to police and gun violence in recent years. While it might not sound like easy listening, per se, Sweet Honey in the Rock soars with a deliberate and soul-shaking dirge for the dead.
by Lydia Hillenburg