Aaron Neville – I Know I’ve Been Changed (2010)

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With a voice that’s axiomatically compared with winged messengers from God, Aaron Neville’s gospel records ought to form the cornerstone of his resume, right? Instead, the New Orleans singing legend’s two previous attempts felt too forced, like being dragged into church.

Not this one.

Neville, paired with producer Joe Henry (Elvis Costello; Rodney Crowell; Allen Toussaint, who adds a calling-card back-pew soul at the piano), offers 13 new recordings of timeless hymns on I Know I’ve Been Changed — but without the reverent formality that staggered earlier attempts.

Credit Henry, who’s got an roots-rocking intimacy as deft as T Bone Burnett but (curiously) without the boffo headlines, as well as a crack group of backing musicians that includes keyboardist Patrick Warren and slide guitarist/dobro player Greg Leisz. They give I Know I’ve Been Changed a rustic, soul-deep sensibility that wasn’t there in 2000’s Devotion and 2003’s Believe.

The truth is, though, Neville has lived that life — a life of deepest, darkest blue — in the intervening years, having lost his home in New Orleans to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and then his wife of 47 years to cancer in 2007. Neville, everywhere on I Know I’ve Changed, is just so present. It’s a nakedly honest recording, something that speaks both to the tradition of this music, but also to its transformative qualities.

Some of these songs are more familiar than others. We’ve heard them sung by the Staple Singers, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Sam Cooke, Big Bill Broonzy. Tom Waits once tackled the title track. But I’m not sure I’ve heard them sung with more passion and power. At times, and this is a credit to swinging rhythms from drummer Jay Bellerose and bassist David Piltch, this album vibrates with a kind of profound reverie — sounding like joy, but broadened with experience.

There is not just the hint, or the passing mention, of struggle. There is a palpable atmosphere of loss. But yet, the 69-year-old hasn’t produced a dark record. It’s not an easy thing to do, echoing the way a preacher’s sermon must balance the hunger for heaven with the fear of hell’s fire.

You get the sense that he’s talking as much to Aaron Neville as anything, inviting and then imploring himself to believe in things again. There’s powerful uplift in that journey — for him, and also for us.

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