Rhiannon Giddens’ new album, “There is No Other,” has the feel of music on the move. It’s about the human journey, wrestling with challenging themes of pain, loss, and hope—both individually and collectively. Writing about pain in the journey is not a new theme for Giddens; her last album “Freedom’s Highway” explored the African-American experience in America. In her third solo album, Giddens’ perspective narrows and widens.
Giddens’ musical style is hard to pin down. Teaming up with the Italian musician Francesco Turrisi, she combines a bluegrass/folk/celtic sound with a spiritual, sometimes even a jazz-sounding, vibe. Giddens employs her vibrant alto voice like an instrument, at times leaning into the gravity of its sound and of the lyrics, at other times jumping around lightly, punctuating notes and ideas with staccato. These combinations lend her music a rich depth.
If you listen to “There Is No Other” from front to back, you get a larger sense of the narrative. Toward the beginning, songs such as “Ten Thousand Voices” and “Wayfaring Stranger” give the listener a sense of context. I was particularly drawn to the latter, made famous by Johnny Cash with its old-spiritual-sounding lyrics and straightforward banjo and accordion sound. This song would feel at home in church, combining soul weariness and hope for the future.
Themes of pain, loss, and loneliness come up again and again. Some of the pieces are quite sad, such as “Little Margaret” or “Black Swan.” Giddens arranges the lyrics here with off-feeling, uncomfortable music. Listening, you feel as you are almost entering her pain.
However we are not left there. The album concludes with two of my favorite tracks—“I’m On My Way” and “He Will See You Through.” Even in the titles you can hear the hope on the horizon. The upbeat “I’m On My Way” feels like an anthem reminding herself “You got this!” Finally, the hymn-like “He Will See You Through,” a song written by Giddens, provides proper perspective. Despite all the challenges life will toss out, the listener is reminded, “nevertheless, God is watching over me.”
Giddens recently told The Irish Times, “It’s all about movement, for both of us … movements of human beings and how we affect each other.” She was talking about the musical collaboration between herself and Turrisi, but she could be talking about her new album. Giddens’ music invites us all to see the ways we are moving, affecting each other as we move. (Nonesuch Records)