India.Arie’s colorful skirts are flying free on the cover of the Atlanta songbird’s new LP Testimony: vol. 1, Life & Relationship. Thealbum, which hit Billboard’s No. 1 the week it debuted, has its charms. As on her previous albums, Acoustic Soul and Voyage to India, her lyrics advocate justice, inner beauty, love and independent thinking. But here, her music eludes the heaviness of earlier work. Strings are everywhere, and the soul has been pared down into something more akin to adult contemporary and pop-country.
It isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In a honey-lite radio-ready cover of Don Henley’s “The Heart of the Matter,” she showcases her interpretation skills and suppleness as a singer. But another surprise move—the track “Summer,” a bluegrassy collaboration with Rascal Flatts and bassist Victor Wooten that adds fiddle, mandolin and guitar—amounts to quaint filler, primarily because she doesn’t seem as invested in the song.
Yet everything comes together in a novel way when Arie takes out her ax and teams up with blues singer-guitarist Keb’ Mo’ for “India’s Song,” a track replete with birdsong. “Too much hypocrisy in this Southern town for me,” begins the lyric, as she takes the listener through the South’s savannahs and live oaks, reflecting on American discrimination. “I wanna go to a place where the wind calls my name,” she affirms, adding, “Spirit knows no color / Either you’re a hater or a lover.” It’s a pastoral, featuring a cinematic, euphoric reprise with strings magnificently orchestrated with Mo’s slide guitar.
But the synth violins in the album’s lead track, “I Am Not My Hair,” a duet with rapper-producer Akon, only dates an otherwise edgy song. It’s a memoir of sorts, and very similar in feel to her first big hit from Acoustic Soul, “Video.” Only here, the lyrics emphasize inner beauty as opposed to outer encroachments, and explain her hair-story. “Little girl with the Press ’N Curl,” Arie begins. “Age 8, I got a Jheri curl / 13, I got a relaxer / I was a source of so much laughter.” The singer shaved off her cascading locks, which may be one reason we are drawn into the song, but tracks like “I Am Not My Hair” recall early ’90s British pop-singer Des’ree’s anthems of encouragement like “You Gotta Be.”
There’s a Disney quality to some of Arie’s tracks. “Wings of Forgiveness” encourages listeners to forgive others because “We’re only human,” while “Better People” admirably argues for more conversations between the very old and the very young. Both have straightforward and basic melodic and rhythmic constructions. Other than the line, “The gas prices, they just keep on rising / The government, they just keep on lying,” the song “There’s Hope” is filled with such unbridled and unrelenting optimism that it could be recommended listening for all ages.
But despite its preachiness and predictability, there are some vestiges of sassiness that save Testimony from mediocrity. “Private Party,” a midtempo Frankie Beverly and Maze-like groove that quotes Stevie Wonder, celebrates her evolution as an independent woman responsible for her own happiness. It’s one of the few refreshing songs on the record where her guitar playing predominates. It also contains some of Arie’s most potent lyricism, calling for an even deeper intimacy with herself. “I’m gonna take off all my clothes / Look at myself in the mirror,” she sings. “We’re gonna have a conversation / We’re gonna heal the disconnection.” She goes on to sing that she’s learned to cherish the “quiet moments and the Sunday mornings of life.” Billie Holiday may have told her “good morning heartache” to sit down, but India.Arie would tell hers to get lost.