East enlivens the current Southern soul renaissance with a thoroughly solid album.
Anderson East’s second major label full-length is fittingly titled. Following up the 2015 debut Delilah, Encore evokes the stomping crowd-pleasers of a concert’s finale, swaggering with revivalist Southern soul and adding brassy R&B hooks to East’s gritty country sound. Filled to the brim with boozy nostalgia and energetic triumphs, it embraces musical influences from Van Morrison to Sam & Dave to Waylon Jennings. Yet however much it works up a well-earned sweat, the album fails to generate the emotional candor that felt genuine throughout the narrative-driven songwriting of East’s debut. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and perhaps it’s just the nature of an encore: to go all in on the energetic while risking a loss of lyrical and emotional depth.
Like Delilah, the album gets its lustrous sheen from the hand of Grammy-Award-winning producer Dave Cobb, whose sharp and bold work with Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson, among others, has made him the most sought-after producer in the Nashville scene. Unsurprisingly, the arrangements are impeccable. From the gospel inflections of “This Too Shall Last” to the brass of “Girlfriend” that swaggers with prizefight bravado, Cobb and East land every sonic punch. But as with his other Nashville collaborators, Cobb crucially requires the howling and scruffy voice of East to complete each country and soul thrust. Few others besides East could hew the vocal scrapes and yelps on the climax of opener “King for a Day” (co-written by Chris and Morgane Stapleton) or the rambunctious hollers throughout the countrified Tina Turner-like romp “Surrender” with such precision. Make no mistake: East’s growling tenor is what makes the album churn.
Such exuberance even translates well on the album’s two cover songs. East transforms Ted Hawkins’s sardonically funny “Sorry You’re Sick” into an all-out country and R&B explosion. Moving with an unrelenting energy, the song features a funky guitar lead, dazzling horns and a silky rhythm guitar reminiscent of Sly and the Family Stone, its high-powered thrust matched by frenetic howls in which East achieves an almost James Brown-like intensity. Although East’s version of Willie Nelson’s “Somebody Pick up My Pieces” is far more level-headed, the dynamic interplay among his rasping vocals, the pitched-up organ and the crooning brass makes for something altogether new.
But for all its high impact, Encore only hits on the surface—its lyrics falling well short of the mark East had set on his debut. Whereas Delilah delivered emotional swells on “Lonely” and a Josh Ritter-like narrative clarity on “Devil in Me,” here the artist feels mired in cliché. For example, “House is a Building” reminds us in the chorus that “Home is a feeling.” Similarly, although “Girlfriend” is the album’s most successful song musically, it relies on juvenile lyrics about falling for a friend’s lover. Such lyrics fall short of the music’s reverence and sharpness. Only East’s roughened delivery gives the songs any sort of emotional tenor.
Closer “Cabinet Door” may be the only track that attains the level of lyrical grace that marked the debut. What’s telling is that this occurs during the album’s most reserved song, suggesting that East’s lyrical vulnerability doesn’t mesh well with the album’s more exuberant music Over a mournful piano, East sings from the perspective of a widowed husband, mired in loneliness: “We spent 52 years giving all we had/ Raised seven kids on that plot of land/ There’s still your loose change and your buttons on your washing stand/ You left one big house for this lonely man.” It’s haunting, and this album could have used more like it.
That said, East’s second album delivers exactly what an audience expects of an encore—songs that rip and roar. His throwback sound creates a space of Southern jubilee filled with throat-threshing gambols and brass stompers. Although his lyrics and emotional depth leave something to be desired on Encore, East enlivens the current Southern soul renaissance with a thoroughly solid album that stands up well against his Nashville counterparts.