There's something inherently hopeful about the title of Sweet Honey in the Rock's latest album, Love in Evolution. Their first studio work in nine years brims with the same hard-won wisdom and love for community that has characterized much of their musical output and personal philosophy. It's a testament to their skill that the anomalies of a six piece all-female a cappella outfit in our modern age doesn't occur to you once when you begin listening to their work.
Each of Love in Evolution's eleven tracks glows with tremendous melodic strength and offer just enough musical accompaniment to realize each song's potential. The production clarity is outstanding with perfect separation and always places the sextet's voices center stage in each song. This is a stunningly contemporary album that manages to reference the past wholesale without ever losing its modern impulse.
Even traditional spirituals like "Somebody Prayed for Me" and "Jesus is on the Mainline" play very much like products of our modern experience. Timelessness is a vehicle that Sweet Honey in the Rock calls up to deliver their messages and the openhearted, deeply emotive style of southern gospel provides them an ideal way to amplify those messages. There's never any hint of the imitative here or elsewhere - when given a chance to tailor their performance, like on their cover of Marvin Gaye's "Mercy Mercy Me". The group instead opts to stake out a different context altogether, undermining expectations, but setting listeners up for a thrilling moment when the pieces lock into place and Sweet Honey in the Rock finishes the song out in rousing, faithful fashion.
"A Prayer for the World" carries on with the approach heard in "Mercy Mercy Me" by portioning the song into two distinct halves. The opening passages in "A Prayer for the World" are highly melodic and strictly a cappella before musicians join in and the song shifts gears into a strong R&B number. "This Place Where I Can Rest" is one of the album's subtler jazz-influenced tracks and has enough soul to balance nicely against its deceptive simplicity. The album's unquestionable highlight, likely for many others as well, is "Oh, Sankofa", a historical horror show set over precise, but streaking percussion. It invokes Latin/Caribbean flavors that, when juxtaposed against the flatly stated brutality of the lyrics, creates an inescapable moment. The chronicle of how an entire black neighborhood suffered a mass lynching at the hands of homicidally racist whites in early 20th century America isn't the sort of track you expect to hear and enjoy. You shouldn't enjoy it. However, it is powerful, gripping, and instructive.
The last song is ironic in its wake. "We Have Come This Far" is a phrase sure to invoke many different responses and, in light of what comes before it on this album, is fraught with meaning. Sweet Honey in the Rock makes their feelings known in another rich, varied singing performance but, ultimately, allows the listeners to decide for themselves how far we've traveled.
One thing is certain, if nothing else: Sweet Honey in the Rock perform a function akin to court poets from a bygone age. They are artists speaking to power, speaking to history, and illuminating its continued relevance to our lives through the medium of music. Love in Evolution might be their finest achievement.