With more than 20 years under its belt, Gov’t Mule has just issued what’s probably its best effort to date, a record that, despite its title, isn’t a hard-charging political exploration but instead a thoughtful, expertly written and produced release that seamlessly marries the outfit’s raw energy and soulfulness. Warren Haynes’ voice has never sounded better, wiser than it does here, the R&B influences that were always evident in his vocals becoming more pronounced and more fully integrated in the rise and fall of his words.

He finds his niche as a balladeer here, offering especially moving performances during “Dreams & Songs,” and the Hendrix-inspired “Easy Times.” During the former, he often recalls (now) late bandmate Gregg Allman’s grit and fire while the later finds him hitting us hard in the heart the way singers on those classic Muscle Shoals sessions used to do. Those comparisons aren’t flattery, they’re suggestive of a singer whose fought hard to get to where he is at this time, sounding confident and more at ease than ever.

Most Mule fans expect him to blaze on his guitar and he certainly does that, raising more than a few bars via “Stone Cold Rage” and the closing “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground,” a moody epic that would not have been out of place on either Led Zeppelin’s IV or Physical Graffiti. Though he’s always found a way of complimenting his voice with the guitar, it’s rarely sounded as clear and bright as it does across this collection.

There have been fans and critics alike who’ve complained that for all of Mule’s ace musicianship, the writing sometimes suffered. That’s not the case here: There’s no excess on the material, it is lean and focused. When it moves into wider expanses it does so without giving any sense of self-indulgence. “Traveling Tune,” which often recalls the Brothers and Sisters-era Allmans serves as a perfect example. The lyric requires the singer not veer too heavily into sadness or sentimentality nor to under emote. It becomes, then, the rarest case of a song during which not one word or note is wasted and may become one the band’s most celebrated.

Having welcomed a cast of guest vocalists to the last LP, Shout!, Mule gives up but one guest turn this time. Jimmie Vaughan rolls in for some smoldering fret work on “Burning Point” but his presence is not intended to outshine the band and in fact only accentuates the unit’s prowess. This is Haynes’ record above all, though. If some of the interplay with drummer Matt Abst, guitarist/keyboardist Danny Louis and bassist Jorgen Carlsson seems muted as compared to past endeavors, the change is a welcome one, revealing a band that has set aside individual needs in favor of allowing the whole to shine.

There are bands that have completely lost their creative footing by the time they’ve recorded 10 studio albums, but Gov’t Mule is a band that seems to be just now hitting its true stride, finding its real strengths and taking stock in them. It might leave some wondering where, besides up, this Mule will go next.

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