Album Review of "Soul of a Woman" by Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings
A Fitting Swan Song from the Queen of Soul
In 2016, three musical legends hammered out their final albums in the face of death, but only one of them stayed focused on a brighter future.
Genre: soul • R&B
Album Review Podcast - Show Notes
Soul of a Woman
Learn more about Sharon Jones, listen to Soul of a Woman, and read additional reviews.
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A Fitting Swan Song from the Queen of Soul
This is a transcript of Ep. 17 of the What's This Album About? podcast - listen here
Hi, everybody! I’m Bobby Waller, and in this episode of What’s This Album About? we’ll be reviewing the latest album by the band that could be described quite fairly as the 21st century’s foremost purveyors of the sound of old-school soul. The album is called Soul of a Woman, and the band is the incomparable Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings.
Sometimes when I’m trying to get clear about an album’s central message, I challenge myself to complete this sentence as succinctly as possible: “This album is about… fill-in-the-blank.” In the case of Soul of a Woman, the finished sentence I came up with read, “This album is about a better future.” And that’s really interesting because the future referred to throughout this album is a future Sharon Jones knew she probably wouldn’t be part of.
Sharon Jones was diagnosed with cancer in 2013 and died from a related stroke in November of 2016. Production work for Soul of a Woman continued several months after Jones’s passing, and the album was finally released on November 17, 2017. The wait, however, but was definitely worthwhile because Soul of a Woman stands out as one of the most notable swan songs of musical greats who died in 2016 deliberately creating their final albums as they stared down death.
The other two standouts in my mind are David Bowie’s Blackstar,
♪ I’m a blackstar, way up, oh honey, I’ve got game
which Bowie wrote as a requiem for himself, and Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker?,
♪ You want it darker? We kill the flame
which contains lines like
♪ I’m ready, my Lord
♪ I’m leaving the table, I’m out of the game
Bowie and Cohen both created swan songs that were focused (largely or in part) on their passing, but Sharon Jones gives death no time on her swan song. Amazingly, Soul of Woman is an album of hope. Take this song, for example:
♪ It’s a matter of time before justice will come
It’s a matter of time, yeah, before all wars will be done
This is Track 1, the album’s biggest selling song, “Matter of Time.” When I first read this title, I wondered if the song would be about mortality. Maybe Jones would be telling us it’s just a matter of time before she shuffles off this mortal coil. Instead, she tells us it’s just a matter of time before the world transcends war and social injustice. Far from resigning herself from this world, she engages in it fully, presaging its transition to a just and peaceful future.
♪ It’s a matter of time, oh yeah
Her concerns turn global again on Track 7, ”Searching for a New Day.”
♪ I’ve been searching for a new day
The song begins with Jones expressing her personal desire for a better life, but in the second verse she expands her desire to include the whole world.
♪ If I find what I’m looking for, I could rule the world
A brand new superstar, once an ordinary girl
And with my newfound fame, I could lend a helping hand
To all those in need, however I can
Jones expresses this desire to help others throughout Soul of a Woman. Take for example Track 4, “Come and Be a Winner,”
♪ Come and be a winner
Come and be a winner
Here the scope is personal throughout, as Jones vows to support someone struggling to find their way in life.
♪ If you seem to get off track
I’ll be there to get you back
Don’t you worry
I’ll be in your corner
But despite these moments when Jones expresses her undying benevolence toward both the world and individuals in time of need, Soul of a Woman as a whole is neither political nor inspirational in character. Instead, Jones sticks firmly to the conventions of old school soul and sings mostly about romantic love. There are breakup songs like “Sail On”…
♪ You told me to sail on
and “Pass Me By,”
♪ I think you better pass me by
and take-me-back songs like “Just Give Me Your Time,”
♪ Just give me your time
and “When I Saw Your Face”
♪ When I saw your face
But in every case, the songs are about a better future. ‘Things will better if you take me back. Things will be better if you go your way. Things will be better if you give me a second chance.’ Amazingly, even as she was dying from cancer, Sharon Jones was steadfastly focused on a brighter tomorrow.
And, to be clear, she was not in denial about what she was going through. She was very public about her fight with cancer. One of the most genuinely beautiful sights the world of music has produced in recent years is Sharon Jones performing on stage bald from chemotherapy, but still wearing her slinky, sequined dresses at age 60—because that’s just what soul singers do. They don’t hide the truth, they sing the truth. And above all else, they put on a show.
On November 8, 2016, Sharon Jones suffered a stroke while watching the results of the U.S. presidential election. She was rushed to the hospital where she was quickly surrounded by loved ones, including the Dap-Kings. She joked that the election results were the cause of the stroke, and, according to those present, she spent her last few moments of lucidity singing gospel songs, still living out the life-affirming message that we now hear on Soul of a Woman, still pushing forward, trying to squeeze in one more precious song, because that’s just what soul singers do.
♪ And he will provide
Yes he will (yes he will)
Provide for you
Special thanks to co-producer/webmaster, Linda Easton. If you like what we do here at What’s This Album About?, tell a friend about us. It’ll help us a lot.
I’m Bobby Waller reminding you to keep pushing forward. And keep your ears open because the more you listen,