Robert Randolph’s divisive We Walk This Road sought to re-contextualize the steel guitar virtuoso, subtly shifting the focus from his instrumental prowess and lickety-split guitar runs toward more studious songcraft. Indeed, the album—which was produced by T-Bone Burnett and includes interpretations of relative obscurities by Bob Dylan, Prince, and John Lennon alongside snatches of old Pentecostal gospel tunes—feels almost as much like a Burnett album as a Randolph one, a folklorist’s bonanza served up for the singer-songwriter set. The album is either remarkably focused or a little bit stilted, depending on who you ask, though it seems like Randolph himself sympathizes with the latter camp: The albums he’s made since then almost sound like he’s running completely in the other direction.
To wit, Got Soul is a jam-band album through and through: The songs flow into one another, the tempo seldom wanes, and the songs themselves are really just vehicles for solos, riffs, and full-band alchemy. Randolph himself was schooled in the “sacred steel” tradition, and has never made an album that captures the ragged spirit of church music quite like this one: There are rafter-shaking solos, jubilant percussion, the ever-present hum of an organ, and soulful backup singers whose voices fill every empty space. Though We Walk This Road has a magnificent cover of Dylan’s “Shot of Love,” Got Soul hews closer to the raw and raucous gospel of Zimmy’s Saved.
As with so many jam-oriented albums, however, the material on Got Soul feels a little thin, and leans heavily on the genre’s clichés. The album’s title track segues into a number called “She Got Soul,” a Chuck Berry-style travelogue minus the humor and wit. Other songs encourage listeners to “Shake It” and tell us that everything’s “Gonna Be All Right.” All that’s fine enough, especially if you’re listening to Got Soul just to hear the jams, though it’s worth noting that the most memorable moments here are the ones where the jam-band signposts are sidestepped altogether: “Heaven’s Calling” is two minutes’ worth of beautiful instrumental reflection, while “Lovesick” slams by at a breakneck speed that’s unusual for the genre.
Though amiably appealing, there’s little about Got Soul that lingers once it’s over. “Love Do What It Do” features Darius Rucker and rides a pleasant Dixie Chicken-style groove, but the song ultimately is just a litany of conventional Nashville images and platitudes: “Love me like your favorite song/Like you love your whiskey strong/Like your Daddy loves your Mama.” Much of the rest of the writing here follows suit—like the songs are just there to hang the goodtime feelings on. Those feelings are real, but they’re also ephemeral.