“Put the gun down/come talk to me—“ Jonatha Brooke’s signature vocals announce the first line of the opening track on her twelfth studio album Midnight. Hallelujah. Delivered acapella, the lyric reaches out like a pair of fists collaring the listener to bring you nose to nose with a tune about desperation, fear, and the possibility of redemption. “Put the Gun Down” is a political statement that makes some ballsy gestures in lyrics like “you got a lot of nerve/bitching ‘bout your freedom” and “no one keeping you clean/is it just attention that you crave,” calling out the nuances of America’s gun violence epidemic that are often too uncomfortable to address. Brooke lets us sweat a little bit with those thoughts before shifting the narrative to a plea for tolerance, peace, and compassion on the individual and collective levels: “you got no way out, except forgiveness/you better choose,” cautions Brooke before launching into the chorus “you carry on, carry on, carry on/nobody done you wrong.” We are all in the long march home together. All of that in the first 3 minutes and 33 seconds of this record.
Elsewhere, I’ve described Brooke as an artist with swagger, and that gutsy approach to songwriting is fully realized on Midnight. Hallelujah. What I have always admired about Brooke is the unflinching way she turns the camera on herself and the universal themes—loss, grief, love, illness, connection—that occupy her work. There is a “no one gets out of here alive” quality to her songwriting that I am grateful for at a time when our culture is suffering from so much disconnect and apathy. We need our artists to remind us that we all have skin in the game.
Brooke leaves it all on the field in this album, daring us not to follow her into sticky territory rife with the contradictions of our lives that we’d rather not acknowledge. The tune “Hashtag Lullaby” indicts our salacious scandal-obsessed culture of which we all contribute to through our compulsive clicks and tweets. “Everybody was somebody’s baby/Every baby got some kind of destiny/Who we once were is not who we may be,” says Brooke. Even a Kardashian deserves our understanding. Similarly, “Alice” is a heart-haunting tune that refuses to turn a blind eye to mental illness, depression, and the complicated realities of medication nation. Setting the song against an up-tempo arrangement, Brooke describes a woman in the grip of psychic and emotional pain: “the currency of your sweet will/lost inside a tiny pill,” acknowledging Alice’s impossible position: “you can’t hear/through the fear/don’t be ashamed.” What saves this song from feeling as if Brooke is preaching from a distance is the raw exasperation, confusion, and sadness she expresses for a situation that confounds her (and she is not alone in that angst). Her register climbs as she sings, “Who do you blame?/the moth or the flame?/the gun or the shooter?/the pill or the pain?”
Musically, Midnight is robust and full-bodied. The stylistic range swings from swampy, gritty blues on “Mean Looking Jesus” (a fantastically sardonic dialogue on religion), to sparse piano and waltzing strings on the tender “Light Years,” an aching Valentine to Brooke’s mother who passed away in 2012, to straight-up classic guitar rock-pop on the catchy love song “You and I.” Nothing is wasted here; every song has teeth, every lick is impeccably laid down. At a time when so many musicians are pulling back musically to create bare-boned arrangements, this record feels satisfyingly old school in the smart and ribald deployment of diverse instrumentation. Like I said: swagger. I stand by it.
Midnight. Hallelujah. is an album we need right now for its honesty, its grit, and its stubborn insistence that no matter how dark that night of the soul gets, it will break. Light finds its way to the surface, love rushes in to root out fear, and we’ll be okay if we remember to lock arms and carry on, carry on.
by Sheila Moeschen
Sheila is a Boston-based writer and music junky. Her work has appeared on The Huffington Post, bioStories, Feminine Collective, and Niche Literary Journal. She is represented by Full Circle Literary Agency.