There aren’t many artists who get to officially make a retirement statement. Most stars just gradually fade away, or sometimes go supernova in a suitably spectacular fashion. Perhaps David Bowie has retired. Or is he merely taking a Miles Davis-styled sabbatical? For health reasons, the veteran Cape Verdean singer Cesária Évora has recently announced her final bow, and now the same situation has arrived with Etta James. This is a highly unusual circumstance in music, offering the opportunity to make a pre-meditated closing statement.
Of course, if this is the case, there’s a considerably increased pressure to produce the goods, to make a fitting summation, following well over half a century in the business. James has straddled R&B, soul, gospel, rock’n’roll and plain old pop, so much so that her style ultimately resides in a special zone where all of these elements are co-opted into a universal sound. It’s a sound that revolves around a rolling, old-school groove, and James has unsurprisingly opted for a classic band with a grand production.
For this powerful last stand, James concentrates on soul and blues, with a strong streak of country rock. Her passion is bolstered by bold horns, stinging guitar solos and a veritable gushing from the Hammond organ corner. The spotlight is completely on James, thankfully sidestepping the now kneejerk guest vocalist scenario. That wouldn’t have been fitting for this farewell session.
The James voice is lower nowadays, possessing a gutsy, lusty quality for someone who’s just about to leave the stage for good. We can't demand the pyrotechnics of her youth, but when James adds "uunhhn" punctuations between lines, there's still a sense of threat, a caution that we shouldn't mess with this sassy madam.
The songbook is excitingly varied, including gems from Ray Charles, Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland and even Guns N' Roses, though James ages their Welcome to the Jungle into a retro reinterpretation that's more directly Rolling Stones-style. There's also an Otis Redding substance-abuse sequence, starting with his Champagne & Wine, then moving on to Cigarettes & Coffee.
The production might be slick, but James relaxes into this framework, providing the necessary lived-in looseness. The songs get slower and slower, as James heads off into the golden distance. The closing Let Me Down Easy is a particular highlight. It's the longest song, with an extended climax that showers potent guitar-work around her lines, as the horns push steadily higher.