Floating in quietly on the downstrums of a guitar, Amy Helm’s tender vocals evoke a loving kindness and compassion on “Verse 23,” the sparse opening track of her third album, What the Flood Leaves Behind. Swelling background vocals carry the song higher and higher as guitars and keys swirl around the vocals, bathing us in luminous rays of redemption and hope. At the center of the song, the singer finds the promise in community and compassion: “You can have some of mine / For as long as it takes / What the flood leaves behind / Is what we’ve got to make.” “Verse 23” is alone worth the price of the album, showcasing Helm’s soulful soprano and her way with a song.
The songs on What the Flood Leaves Behind range over the power of place, the energy of words to hurt or heal, the languorous emergence of desire, the ghosts — of places and of people — that haunt us, and the destructive and restorative beauty of nature. The funky soul strutter “Breathing” shakes and moans with the rolling pleasures of love and togetherness, with Helm’s vocals riding high over a horn-drenched Memphis soul stew.
Helm’s shimmering vocals flow above a rolling Wurlitzer, played in the style of the great Shoals keyboard player Spooner Oldham, on the gritty and vulnerable “Cotton and Cane,” a heart-wracking story of home and the legacy of family.
Crunchy guitars lay down the bed on which the gospel-inflected “Calling Me Home” lays it head; the song revises the opening lines of the great Thomas A. Dorsey’s “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” — “Precious Lord, take my hand / Lead me on, help me stand / I am tired, I am weak, I am worn” — to “Memphis take my hand, lead me on, help me stand / I tried to walk the steady line / I’m tired, it’s not been easy.” Like Dorsey’s spiritual, “Calling Me Home” is a plea for refuge and strength; in this case in the memory of the deep love of family and the inescapable mark of place.
The album closes with the enchantingly beautiful “Renegade Heart” which, like “Verse 23,” rides along a sonic spaciousness to create a quietly transformative splendor.
What the Flood Leaves Behind quietly invites us in, takes us to the altar of the heart, and lifts us up, searches our hearts, fills our souls, and lovingly caresses us as we walk emotionally renewed into the fresh light of day.