Any album by Merry Clayton is reason to celebrate. Clayton, whose soaring and defiant vocals on the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” conveyed the raw, visceral emotion of the song and launched it into the sonic stratosphere, returns with her first album since 1994’s Miracles. Her voice is stronger than ever and has lost none of its power. She inhabits musical phrases and song lyrics and dwells in them, turning them inside out and expressing just the right emotional response. She makes songs her own, and her vibrant and rich vocals transport us every time she sings.
Clayton’s new album, Beautiful Scars, grows out a challenging time in her life. In 2014, not long after 20 Feet from Stardom, the film that tells her amazing story, won the Oscar for Best Documentary, Clayton was involved in a horrific car accident. She lost both of her legs, requiring five months in the hospital and four years of rehabilitation. While she was still in the hospital, Clayton started talking about the possibility of recording again with her long-time friend Lou Adler, who co-produced this album with the great gospel singer and songwriter Terry Young.
Beautiful Scars is the result of that conversation, and as the title indicates it’s a testimony to the exquisite beauty that grows out of pain and the recognition that the emotional and physical scars we carry with us remind us of the hope that rises out of suffering. The album reflects Clayton’s deep and resilient faith, and she testifies to the need for justice and love for the world.
The album opens with a fresh take on Leon Russell’s “A Song for You,” which first appeared on her 1971 album, Merry Clayton. This version opens with LA’s Finest Choir singing the song’s first line in a heavenly a cappella; Clayton’s rich vocals then swoop and soar around them. The song incorporates a smoothly evocative vintage sax solo recording by Clayton’s late husband, Curtis Amy, who passed away in 2002. “A Song for You” spirals higher and higher, and by the end of this first song Clayton and the choir and musicians have already carried us to such emotional heights we wonder how we can go any higher. It doesn’t take long to find out; Clayton goes on to lead the choir in a call-and-response gospel shouter, “Touch the Hem of His Garment,” in which she tells anew the biblical story of the woman who’s made whole simply by touching the hem of Jesus’s robe.
“Deliverance” rides along Young’s shimmering piano chords, building slowly into a lush jazz gospel song of praise, reminiscent of some of Andrae Crouch’s early songs such as “Take Me Back.” Clayton’s pure vocals wash over us, cleansing us with their emotional clarity and carrying us out of ourselves on the standout “Like a Mighty River,” written by Coldplay’s Chris Martin, who also plays piano on the track. Clayton testifies on the soaring title track to the beauty of the scars she wears: “Every hurt I wear like a tattoo / I am who I am because of them.” The album closes with “Ooh Child Medley,” which opens with a dialogue between Clayton and her granddaughter, Kyliyah Merry Amy, about where to find the good in the world and moves into a medley of “There is No Secret What God Can Do,” “Ooh Child,” and “Put a Little Love in Your Heart” with Clayton and Amy trading lead vocals and featuring Jackie DeShannon on background vocals. By the time this rousing medley is finished, we’ve once again been transported.
Beautiful Scars is a precious gift, and every song shines brightly with love and faith and the knowledge that we can make the world a better place when we humble ourselves and embrace our “beautiful scars.”