Over the course of her first three albums, Georgia native Lizz Wright has tackled styles ranging from traditional jazz and vintage R&B to blues and even country. For her latest, Fellowship, Wright brings her classically trained pipes and deeply soulful sense of phrasing to gospel music. The result is both the fourth straight album to prove that Wright is perhaps the most gifted interpretive vocalist of her generation, and also a profound, moving gospel record.
Fellowship isn’t a full album of explicit religious music, though Wright shows herself to be a superlative arranger of familiar hymns and spirituals like “Amazing Grace” and “Power Lord” when she chooses to perform that kind of material. Instead, the album draws comparisons to Patty Griffin’s brilliant Children Running Through in that Wright’s arrangements and performances consistently find the deep spiritual core of each song. Like Griffin’s record, Fellowship might be best described as “secular gospel.”
Even a cover of R&B standard “(I’ve Got to Use My) Imagination” is given a clear spiritual bent, as Wright emphasizes lines like “Darkness all around me/Blackened out the sun” as though the aftermath of an unexpected breakup had been foretold in the book of Revelation. By the time she wraps her honey-drenched contralto around the refrain of “It’s so strong/Got to keep on keepin’ on,” she’s drawn a clear and effective parallel between rebounding from lost love and religious perseverance and faith. The album is so powerful because Wright views reflection and questioning as paramount to the religious experience.
That thoughtfulness and insight are perfectly captured on the album’s title cut, a cover of a song from Meshell Ndegeocello’s Comfort Woman, on which Wright asks a series of truly deep questions that strike at the heart of the hypocrisy in so much of modern religion: “If you believe your God is better than another man/How we gonna end all of your suffering?” It’s a credit to Wright’s restraint as a vocalist that she phrases those questions in a way that scans as a cautious guide rather than a series of accusations. But that doesn’t mean she shies away from conflict when it’s called for: On the stirring climax of standout cut “I Remember, I Believe,” with its simply exquisite wordless chant as a refrain, Wright declares herself ready to “raise [her] voice for justice.”
And what a voice Wright has. It isn’t simply a matter of the richness of her vocal tone or her peerless control, but of the sensitivity and insight that she displays throughout Fellowship. An album that trades in questions of reverence and the careful consideration of the drive to believe in higher authorities, Fellowship is a testament to the power and relevance of gospel music when it’s approached with intelligence and grace.