Sunny War’s distinctive approach to guitar is no doubt influenced by her days busking on Venice Beach: an inexorable wall of sound that is also fleeting like the ocean. On her previous albums, War’s music lived comfortably somewhere between blues, folk, and jazz. On Simple Syrup, War surrounds herself with a band that buoys her as she releases some of her most confrontational songs to date.
“Mama’s Milk” stands out as a muscular funk and blues-driven rebuff of the patriarchy. War’s delivery is cold as ice while the music swirls around her, illustrating in no uncertain terms who’s in control. The song spins out into a loose sax swirl before gracefully landing in its conclusion.
That even keel continues through songs like “Deployed and Destroyed,” a gentle recollection of one of War’s friends from the streets, a veteran struggling with PTSD and failing to get the care he needed. The lyrics are heartrending, as the narrator finds themself in the difficult position of setting firm boundaries with a person who needs more help than the narrator can give. In spite of the subject matter, War’s delivery is suggestive of a lullaby — one for people witnessing in mute horror the ways our society fails us.
“Like Nina” serves as Simple Syrup’s anchor, a shining example of War and her band’s loose approach to compact compositions. The lyrics critique our culture’s expectations of Black women singers — and what happens when their music is appropriated by white singers. War creates a wall of sound with her guitar that guitarist Milo Gonzalez nimbly weaves around. Breaking out the electric guitar on this one, War invokes blues traditions that have been stolen and co-opted for the profit of white artists and record executives.
Simple Syrup is hypnotic, a collection of pulsing songs as intricate and strong as spider’s silk. With this album, War brings us deep into both the personal and political — and into the tender, painful places where they connect. Whether she’s singing about the justice movement that revived this summer, the fear of the pandemic, or her own struggles with addiction, War brings a gentle resolve to each of her songs, reminding us that both the good times and the bad come in waves.