Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD)
On Anarchist Gospel, Nashville guitarist, singer, and songwriter Sydney Lyndella Ward—also known as Sunny War—navigates a binary as old as Black American music itself. In an effort to stamp out the rich cultural reservoirs from which African people drew strength and identity, African music and traditional religion were effectively banned on plantations throughout the United States. Africans were allowed to attend church, smuggling the expressive power of their religion and music into the church behind the facade of Christianity. Thus, the Black church became the sole refuge where enslaved Africans could cut loose from the daily cycle of surveillance and punishment that stifled every other aspect of their lives. This cruel dynamic created a divide between the sacred and the spiritual where none had existed before.
With its thematic dance between good and evil and its stylistic mixture of gospel with the blues, country, and rock n’ roll, Anarchist Gospel embodies all of this history. The album’s opener, “Love’s Death Bed,” tackles love and loss as Ward speaks directly to a lover who she promises will be her “last heartbreak.” We listen in as their relationship dissolves as the beautiful chorus “On love’s death bed, I lay my bouquet of flowers / On love’s death bed, I cry away our final hours.” drives the final nail into the coffin. “No Reason” is a treatise on human duality wrapped up in an upbeat country-rock tune. Over a popping groove and swooning background vocals, Ward describes a person who struggles to reconcile the best and worst aspects of their character. It’s a brilliantly executed song. “I Got No Fight” is a fantastic example of weariness as an emotional and thematic device commonly used in both the blues and gospel music. When Ward sings “Been up all night waiting for day to come. I want it over long before it’s done”, she embodies the feeling of weariness in the blues: A deep, unshakable emotional fatigue that comes from being Black in an anti-black world.
Beautifully played and full of Ward’s moving vocal performances (check her gorgeous cover of Dionne Farris’ “Hopeless”), Anarchist Gospel is a stellar work of art. By reconciling the emotional, political, and spiritual dichotomies that have characterized so much Black music, Ward shows us that wholeness is possible.