After Sharon Jones’ memorial service in Brooklyn last December, the musicians who’d gathered to remember her got right back to the work. Gathered at the Daptone House of Soul, these collaborators (which included Bosco Mann and The Dap-Kings, as well as members of E.L. Fields’ Gospel Wonders, the gospel choir of Jones’ Universal Church of God) returned to one song in particular: “Call on God”, an uplifting gospel hymn Jones wrote four decades earlier as a young member of that same choir.
Written in obscurity in the 1970s, recorded at the height of her performative powers in 2007, and finished by friends after her death in 2016, “Call on God” acts as a bridge across Jones’ unlikely (and inspiring) career. Its finished form also serves as the anchor track to her posthumous album, Soul of a Woman, and what a reassuring anchor it is; buoyed by a warm organ bed and the newly dubbed backing vocals of her old friends, Jones sounds serene and confident as she calls for an end to fear and a beginning to eternal love.
It’s an exquisitely solemn end to the record and a fitting coda to the life of the soul revival superstar whose untimely death from pancreatic cancer at the age of 60 cut short a stunning late-in-life ascendance that included a well-received documentary film and first Grammy nomination in 2015. However, the album’s most remarkably qualities don’t lay in its two most obvious moments of stock-taking (the other being the lively civil rights anthem “Matter of Time”), but in Jones and the Dap-Kings’ continued dedication to the here and now.
Despite the circumstances of its creation and release, Soul of a Woman remains both grounded in human concerns and remarkably forward-looking, with Jones finding faith in building towards even the briefest of futures. Much of the credit here goes to the songwriters in the Dap-Kings, who gave their frontwoman both the energy and the material necessary to succeed. This comes through best on the album’s spirited first half, where tracks like “Sail On!” and “Rumors” crackle with the sensual show-band dynamism often found in the groups renowned live shows.
Jones’ best work came through exploring the emotional intricacies and broad passions of romantic relationships, and that’s no different on Soul of a Woman. In fact, these affairs of the heart smolder even more heatedly than usual on the record’s ballad-heavy second half. Replete with cinematic strings and pounding timpanis, standouts including “These Tears (No Longer for You)” and “Girl! (You Got to Forgive Him)” make full use of Jones’ vocal and emotional range. They’re also tinged with sadness; in addition to the bittersweet double meanings that many lyrics assume in the wake of her death, these songs also represent the abbreviated version of a full-orchestral Sharon Jones album that, sadly, will never come to pass.
Sadness and sureness have always found homes in Sharon Jones’ music, and illness didn’t change that. It didn’t change much of anything; someone listening to these songs without knowledge of the singer’s diagnosis would be hard-pressed to identify anything amiss. Soul of a Woman never deviates from the formula that brought ones fame in the first place, and why should it? Rather than dwelling on her illness or attempting to put a bow on a career cut short, her final studio album finds her doing what she always did: singing with such force and fire that it’d be impossible not to listen.
Essential Tracks: “Sail On!”, “These Tears (No Longer for You)”, and “Call on God”
Album Review: Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings – Soul of a Woman