There’s something vaguely performative about Anderson East titling his new album Encore. It’s the gesture of a hard-working crowd-pleaser, looking to give listeners what they want. East doubles down on his now-familiar brand of simmering, swaggering Southern soul—a sound borrowed from Van Morrison’s strutting, full-band R&B as much as it is from the raving, gritty musical style of Sam & Dave, Solomon Burke, and even Joe Cocker. As a singer, East always sounds, in the best possible sense, like he’s working his ass off.
East has such a commanding presence that anything he does is bound to be a triumph of performance, but Encore is also a master class in arrangement. Producer Dave Cobb—well known for his spare and austere work with East, Jason Isbell, and Chris Stapleton—supplies his most expansive sonic palette yet, the songs here shimmering with layers of organ, guitar, and a punchy horn section that effortlessly matches East’s brassy energy. The effect is a sound that’s full and muscular but never needlessly busy.
These triumphs of performance and arrangement are easiest to appreciate on Encore‘s cover songs. Ted Hawkins’s original folk obscurity “Sorry You’re Sick” is a scruffy acoustic number, and here it’s been transformed into an uptempo raver with a punch-drunk horn line. Even greater is East’s take on “Somebody Pick Up My Pieces,” a Willie Nelson standard that’s typically been done in a haunted, despondent style. East doesn’t ignore the song’s innate melancholy, but he does infuse it with a healthy dose of determination—revving up the pace, adding harmonies, and performing it as a swaying song of resilience.
The album’s original material is slightly less memorable, if only because the lyrics sometimes trend toward the generic; “House Is a Building” is a reminder that “home is a feeling,” a cliché that falls flat on paper but gains some resonance simply for the emotional gravity that East brings to his performance. He shares all of his songwriting credits with Nashville stalwarts—including Chris and Morgane Stapleton on the opening track, “King for a Day”—so the melodies are robust and the songs sturdily constructed. What’s missing is a point of view; the things that make these songs feel distinctive all come from East’s singing and the hotshot energy of his band.
East conveys his truth through feeling, and his sensual approach invests his performances with a strong sense of emotional connection. Catharsis comes early and often on Encore, the high point of which is “This Too Shall Last,” a song that acknowledges how good things can crumble, while still affirming that love can last over the long haul. The track grounds hopefulness within realism, and East sells this point of view through his warm stoicism.
East knows how to have fun, which is the perfect word to describe “Girlfriend,” which abounds in dramatic blasts of horns, a wailing organ, and thunderous percussion, all surrounding a percolating soul groove. “I think I’m in love with your girlfriend,” East sings on the chorus, and that’s the full story. The songwriting isn’t meant to be deep, as the track is an excuse for East and Cobb to fire up the orchestra, for the band to delve into some tight funk, and most of all for East to give one of his most gleeful vocal turns. As always, he’s perfectly willing to work up a sweat in order to sell it—and the effort pays off.