Joan Osborne | Trouble and Strife | (Womanly Hips)
Four out of Five stars
Is Joan Osborne the new queen of soul? Some may find that an odd proposition, given the fact she’s a white pop singer who hasn’t released an album of all new material in the past six years. Nevertheless, the tellingly titled Trouble and Strife finds Osborne not only navigating her way through a series of soulful grooves, but also tackling tough subjects that are solidly in sync with the nation’s turmoil and tension, polarized politics and continuing cultural divide.
With a 25-year career, spanning multiple Grammy nods and all-star collaborations with the likes of Bob Dylan, the Dead, Mavis Staples and any number of other iconic individuals, Osborne’s name finds continuing placement at the top of most marquees. Even so, her recent absence offers her reason for reinvention. As an R&B chanteuse, she’s both credible and convincing, offering no hint of posturing or pretense in any of these 10 tracks. That’s instantly apparent in the effusive opener “Take It Any Way I Can Get It,” the punchy and propulsive “Hands Off,” the soul-stirring “Whole Wide World” and the funk-fueled, Prince-like piece, “Meat and Potatoes.”
Still, a truly catchy number like “Boy Dontcha Know” belies the underlying meanings and messages that permeate this set. Each demands a deeper listen, whether it’s the question of sexual disparity at the core of “Boy Dontcha Know,” the greed and corruption that underscores “Hands Off” or the insight into the immigration imbroglio as told from a first-hand perspective in “What’s That You Say.” Each conveys powerful and poignant lessons that are all the more essential in these troubled and turbulent times.
Fortunately, Osborne still finds cause for optimism. “Lookin’ past the sorrow and the tears, let me take you to the better place, let me put that smile back on your face,” she urges on “Whole Wide World,” a decidedly uplifting anthem. Even the most persistent pessimist would likely agree that where each of those offers are concerned, she clearly comes through.