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Lonnie Holley - MITH Music Album Reviews

For his Jagjaguwar debut, the acclaimed 68-year-old sculptor offers a harrowing portrait of the United States and its systems for suffering. Then, he dances.

Lonnie Holley starts MITH, his third album, with a simple, striking statement: “I’m a suspect in America,” he sings over a prismatic keyboard line, stretching the last syllable until he runs out of breath. As a black man who has lived in the cities of the South for much of his life, Holley has endured that reality for 68 years, watching as white suspicion of black bodies has evolved but never receded. “Here I stand accused/My life has been so misused/Through blood, sweat, and tears/I’m a suspect,” he continues, as overdubbed vocals, synthesizers, and woozy trombone bloom around his words. He ultimately reasons that all of us—yes, even the suspects—become dust specks, anyhow. The song drifts into silence.

Holley’s life has been dotted by death and hardship. But in the late 1970s, he began assembling everyday detritus into found-art sculptures that balance the pedestrian with the surreal, a practice that has earned him high-profile spots at The Met and the Smithsonian American Art Museum. He made music all the while, sharing it among friends on cassette, but he didn’t issue his first real record until 2012’s Just Before Music, at the age of 62. That record and its follow-up, 2013’s Keeping a Record of It, felt like gentle trips through outer space, as if it were possible to float the Milky Way. But on MITH, Holley does with music what he’s done with visual art for decades: He collects our ugliest obscured objects and transforms them into singular reflections on our troubled world.

For MITH’s 18-minute centerpiece, “I Snuck Off the Slave Ship,” Holley methodically imagines the process and pain of enslavement, beginning by watching his own capture from a distance while chains and hand drums rattle behind him. He uses this narrative conceit to trace intertwined histories of labor and oppression—sneaking off one slave ship only to end up on another, with chattel slavery transformed into industrial wage slavery—well into the future, where the cycle will ostensibly continue. Holley sees dripping blood, drowning bodies, and exploding bombs, his voice rising from familiar astral soul into gnarled screams. “I Woke Up in a Fucked-Up America” follows, made harrowing by horns that herald end times. People have been waking up in a fucked-up America long before the United States existed, but Holley grounds the feeling in our time with references to “overdatafying,” “arguing, fussing, and fighting,” and “the miscount of voting around the world.” Swooping brass and calamitous percussion swell behind him. “Let me out of this dream,” Holley sings of what is actually a nightmare, requesting relief before a final blast of horns seals his fate.

Animated by expanded instrumentation, this unease ripples throughout MITH. Holley’s supporting cast here includes avant-garde instrumentalists like Dave Nelson and Shahzad Ismaily, plus harmonies from folk duo Anna & Elizabeth. Drums from late producer Richard Swift lend “Copying the Rock” a soft sense of chaos. On “Coming Back (From the Distance Between the Spaces of Time),” cymbal splashes and snare rolls add a sense of looming anxiety; Holley sings about a human returning from outer space, warning of the solidarity it will take for us to survive what is to come.

But MITH isn’t entirely mirthless. Holley again maps the skies on “How Far Is Spaced-Out?” and conjures a jazz-adjacent flow during “There Was Always Water,” which features fellow mystic improviser Laraaji. But the finale, “Sometimes I Wanna Dance,” unfolds with such contrasting gaiety that it almost feels accidental. As Laraaji bounds around an upbeat piano line, Holley urges his listeners to “Shake it around, up or down, in or out,” his vocals crisscrossing like dancers across the floor of a high-school gym. A free activity and an act of freedom, dancing requires no special skills or circumstances; you can dance at home or work, for 15 seconds or until your body falls to the floor. No whiplash ending, this is a survivor’s reminder to look beyond pervasive doom and gloom and summon the spirit needed for another day. If we can’t take the time to express the joy of our own creation and our shared humanity, what’s the point of any of this?

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