Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide Album

God Don't Never Change: The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson [Alligator, 2016]
We hear Johnson less as a singer of songs than as a primal force: gruff roar softened slightly by female backup overwhelming resonant bottleneck to honor a merciful God who had damn well better be strong enough to get us out of a damn hard world. So one advantage of this tribute album is that the vocalists foreground the lyrics. Tom Waits and Lucinda Williams get two songs apiece, and although they will no doubt be accused of oversinging as if this isn't Johnson the exaggerator already, Waits's opening "The Soul of a Man" and Williams's "God Don't Never Change" are milestone performances and the other two rock. Almost as impressive is how confidently and conceptually lesser honorees Sinead O'Connor, Susan Tedeschi, Margo Timmins, and Maria McKee put their songs across. All women, notice--Luther Dickinson fares less well, although not as ruinously as Rickie Lee Jones, whose affected croak wrecks "Dark Was the Night--Cold Was the Ground," which Johnson recorded guitar-only. Crucially, each performs with her or his own band. And then there are the only black performers here, the eternal Blind Boys of Alabama, who amid all the bellowing and emoting deliver "Motherless Children" as if thanking God for getting that hellhound off their trail a long long time ago. A-