From Flannery O’Connor’s rural grotesqueries to Lucinda Williams’s tales of small-town desperation, there’s a long tradition of writers drawing inspiration from the physical, cultural, and spiritual qualities of the American South. Lizz Wright is less a writer than an interpretive singer, but her sixth album, Grace, belongs to that same lineage: the songs’ stretched-out tempos reflect the leisurely cadence of life below the Mason-Dixon line; the choral backdrops suggest Pentecostal fervor that’s seeped into the soil; and throughout, Wright’s performances reflect a particularly Southern kind of sinewy strength.
The songs on Grace—nine covers plus one original—span eras and musical genres but are all connected by their sense of place. “Southern Nights” is an Allen Toussaint song that transforms the imagery of the South into a kind of hazy fever dream (Wright’s drifting, slowed-down version has an almost surreal quality to it), while Bob Dylan’s “Every Grain of Sand,” a Christian spiritual from his born-again era, captures both the haunted faith traditions and the underlying resilience of Southern culture.
Of course, there’s an elephant in the room: In 2017, the symbols of the South are fraught with controversy. But Grace avoids politics and looks beyond flags and statues and to the humanity that binds us, and to how hard-won truths are expressed through song and story. Wright’s not idealizing anything; she’s just clinging to the intimate connections that music can afford.
The sound of Grace is live and immediate—from the crackling, finger-popping groove that underscores “Barley,” a hymn of strength written by up-and-coming band Bird of Chicago, to the tight, swinging take on Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Singing in My Soul.” Elsewhere on the album, Ray Charles’s “What Would I Do Without You” is plucked from its late-night gloom and transformed into a snappy, confident shuffle.
As a singer, Wright brings deep, sonorous dignity to “Seems I’m Never Tired of Loving You,” a song most commonly associated with Nina Simone. In lesser hands it could sound like a song of desperation and desire, but Wright performs it as an anthem of determined love, of intimacy that can withstand any storm. Wright and producer Joe Henry bring in a gospel choir, here and on a handful of other cuts, and it can’t help but cast the song in a new light: The love Wright’s singing about isn’t purely carnal, but also divine and enduring.
The album’s sole original composition, “All the Way Here,” tells of a weary traveler returning to her roots; she’s the same person she always was and yet stronger and wiser for what she’s seen on her journey. Throughout Grace, Wright manifests this character. The album is a sort of homecoming but not a return to basics. As these songs of experience prove, she’s grown far too much for this album to feel like anything but a fresh new chapter, even as it draws a connection to all the places she’s been.