Sunny War – Anarchist Gospel: Album Review

Could this be the ONE?  The latest offering from Sunny War may just be the big breakthrough…

Release Date:  3rd February 2023

Label: New West Records

Formats: CD, Vinyl, Download, Streaming

Back in March 2021 (was it REALLY that long ago…?) we were stunned, charmed, challenged and invigorated by an album called Simple Syrup, from hitherto unknown (at least to us) singer-songwriter and master guitar-picker, Sunny War.  We waxed ecstasy as we referred to Simple Syrup as “A delectable album, packed full of superb music and astounding musicianship…” and I predicted that the album would “…become part of my life for a long time to come.”

Well – it did exactly that, and I’ve spent the past couple of months eagerly awaiting Sunny’s follow-up, her first for Nashville-based New West Records and now, at last, it’s here.  Sunny War has been making some significant waves lately.  It seems that we weren’t the only people to be knocked out by Simple Syrup and coverage of Sunny War in the mainstream music press has been growing steadily over the past few months.  I have no doubt that Anarchist Gospel, that longed-for new album, will fulfill, nay – exceed – the expectations placed upon it and I have a strong inkling that it might just be the album that triggers the big breakthrough that is surely coming Sunny War’s way.

To recap, Sunny War was born Sydney Lyndella Ward to a single mother in Nashville, Tennessee – imagine her given name being uttered with a Tennessee accent and it isn’t hard to understand how her professional name came about. As a child, she and her mother moved around the USA, encountering poverty, addiction and deprivation along the way before eventually settling in Venice Beach, California.  She’s recently upped sticks once again and she’s now back in Nashville, the town where it all – good and bad – started for her.  Her first steps as a performer were with punk band, Anus Kings, before she went on to develop her folk/blues interests.  Before Simple Syrup, she’d released four previous albums between 2014 and 2019.

At The Barrier has already identified Sunny War as a major talent.  Her clawhammer guitar picking style, honed whilst busking the streets of LA, is heavily influenced by the style pioneered by Elizabeth “Libba” Cottenand has been compared to the techniques used by the likes of Richard Thompson and Bert Jansch. Her voice is deep and rich, with flavours of Nina Simone, Joan Armatrading and Dusty Springfield and her compositions are tasteful and sophisticated – and utterly unclassifiable – with folk, gospel, country, blues, jazz and rock all providing influences.

Anarchist Gospel is, in many ways, a natural progression from the delights of Simple Syrup.  The sophistication and variety remain, but this time around the songs are, perhaps, rather more accessible, with strong flavours of mid-sixties soul evident in several of the songs. 

With one exception (which I’ll come to), the songs are all Sunny’s own and, as we’ve come to expect from Sunny, they cover the whole gamut of human emotion.  She’s had a tough time since we last encountered her – she lost her father, suffered a broken relationship and endured the trauma of relocating – and those experiences come through in the songs. There’s also a whole sackful of political and social messaging here, too, with subjects like the state of the planet and America’s treatment of its less-fortunate citizens feeling the full force of Sunny’s ire, but, amongst the angst, there’s also a whole lot of hope and optimism on offer.  As Sunny explains: “I feel like there are two sides of me.  One of them is very self-destructive, and the other is trying to work with that other half to keep things balanced.  That’s the central conflict on Anarchist Gospel, which documents a time when it looked like the self-destructive side might win out.”

But don’t form the impression that the songs on this fine album are going to be dourly political, self-pitying or overly introspective.  Anarchist Gospel is definitely an album on which the music wins out.  The overall feel is bright and upbeat, the tunes are enjoyable and well-structured, the production well-considered, giving priority to Sunny’s voice and guitar when it counts and offering a richness and depth when the other instruments cut in and, of course, the playing is breathtaking.  And to add to that richness and depth, Sunny has enlisted the help of a veritable galaxy of guests, including Jim James (My Morning Jacket), Allison Russell, David Rawlings, Jack Lawrence (The Raconteurs), Micah Nelson, John James Tourville (The Deslondes), Kyshona Armstrong and Dennis Crouch.

The bluesy Love’s Death Bed is an excellent opening track.  In a characteristic blend of styles, a sold drumbeat provides the drive and Sunny’s fingerpicked guitar proves the heart and soul, whilst bluesy harmonica and swirling organ fill up the available spaces.  No Reason, the album’s lead single has already been described as “thrilling” by popular podcast All Songs Considered, and that’s a fair appraisal.  A rumble of drums heralds a bright, bouncy, number with a mid-sixties poppy feel.

Piano, backed by a solid, insistent, bassline take the lead for Shelter and Stones.  Sunny’s vocals are way out front and a sheer delight, as they are for the excellent I Got No Fight, one of the album’s folkier numbers that gets more and more soulful, once the organ and then some marvelous electric guitar kick in.  Some excellent harmonica lines add a country feel to the bluesy Swear to Gawd, before Sunny excels once more in the vocal department on the folky, slightly jazzy, Earth.

Sunny describes current single New Day as “…probably the most sensitive song on the album.  It is very ‘emo.’  For me, it is about how whimsical love can feel.  When we fall out of love, we realise we were almost under a spell.  To me, believing in love is like believing in magic.  And I believe in both.”   And the song is a true album highlight; Sunny’s guitar picking is exquisite and her highly intimate vocal is outstanding, with more than a hint of Joan Armatrading.  And I simply love the violin solo.

The album’s only cover is a tuneful, intimate version of Baby Bitch, a song taken from Chocolate and Cheese, the 1994 album from pioneering Pennsylvania rock band, Ween.  To a backing of tinkling acoustic guitar and a rock-solid drum/bass foundation, Sunny’s delivery is almost joyful, despite the unmasked venom of lyrics like: “Baby, baby, baby bitch – F*ck you, you stinkin’ ass ho…” 

Perhaps the most overtly folky song on the album is the bright, upbeat His Love, before a dusting of soul is added to the folk for the excellent Hopeless.  And things get even better as David Rawlings and Jack Lawrence add their guitar-picking skills for Higher, perhaps my favourite track on this outstanding album.  Producer Andrija Tokic comes up trumps with a rich production that subtly blends Sunny’s vocal/acoustic guitar lead with some wonderful organ, divine slide guitar and a frantic drum part that seems to suggest that drama is never too far away.

In complete contrast, the quickfire Test Dummy is a countrified shuffle – and Sunny’s guitar and vocals are stunning yet again – before the pace is dialed right back for the delicate, intimate Sweet Nothing, the album’s longest track and another real highlight.  The song builds wonderfully as, first, strings, then lush backing vocals join the acoustic guitar.  Sunny’s vocal is, maybe, her best on the whole album and the song is deep and sincere – I started to wonder how on Earth Sunny War could follow that one…

Well – she followed it by reverting back to being the Sunny War that we all now know and love, to close the album with one final joyous amalgam of folk, soul, gospel and rock, on the aptly-titled Whole.  Mellow acoustic and spicy electric guitars are fronted by one last taste of that glorious voice.  Thank you, Sunny War.  Anarchist Gospel is a masterwork!

And vinyl-lovers will be interested to know that, alongside the standard black vinyl version of Anarchist Gospel, limited-edition copies will also be available in opaque red, translucent red and black, red swirl and hand-poured opaque red, black and white vinyl.  Check out New West Records’ website for further details.

And, if you happen to be Stateside during February and March, you might be interested to know that Sunny War will be touring to promote Anarchist Gospel.  Details of the tour itinerary are available here.

Watch the official video to No Reason – the album’s lead single – here:

Sunny War online: Website/ Facebook/ Twitter/ Instagram/ YouTube

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