Review Summary: Nina at her eclectic best.
Spoilers, this album ranks among Nina’s best. It's on the same mantle as Pastel Blues, …Sings the Blues, I Put a Spell on You, and Wild is the Wind. Out of her best albums, however, “High Priestess of Soul” absolutely ranks as the least homogenous. On “High Priestess…” one will experience an array of – yes, soul - but pop, swing, folk, blues, jazz, gospel and spiritual. In any other hands, this stark variance of genre would merely become hodgepodge.
With Nina, however, she transcended the archetype of popular multi-faceted, wide-appeal vocal talent (Flack, Franklin, Vaughn, etc.). Maybe it’s her vibrant activist spirit, or her sheer ability to convey her turmoil through immaculate contralto, but something about Nina’s musicianship reveals incomparable sincerity. And on "High Priestess" you will come to know with brazen sincerity the flame which sparks Nina's heart.
The centerpiece of this album, Simone’s own “Take Me to the Water,” is a whirlwind of gospel trope. The lyrical content (Nina praying to be baptized) is simplistic and limited – but that trope simplicity acts as a foil to the absolute authenticity of her vocal performance; when you hear Nina calling out to be baptized, you feel her repentance. You experience her life of trial, folly, hope, redemption, of humility following pride, of God following flesh.
Up to this point in the album, the standards of her era supply us excellent Berry, Ellington, and Bobby Scott tunes. Tunes about love lost, love trusted, love lusted, and love scorched. All these are accompanied by varying styles; all genuine, all catchy, all endearing. But for a brief moment Simone puts fleshly love on hold. “Take Me to the Water” has seen your life’s accumulating momentum of labor, romance, leisure, toil, civic interconnectedness and puts it all to halt. You are with Truth now. You were always with Truth – that previous enumeration was not figment – but now you are finally apart from all of the absolute bullsh*t.
Once this brief moment is over, seamlessly Simone has redeemed herself a joyous exclamation made by someone saved: “I’m Going Back Home.” We are back on Earth. We have seen God, and now we - with pride - take claim to our toil. All is well, even when we suffer. Even when the rest of the album bears songs that will break your heart, or break your back.
Nina can put on a performance, but when it’s time to cut the sh*t, she does so with tact. This is what you will find on this album: A spectrum of pop and human emotion; an enjoyable, well-done foray into the styles of the era and prior; a varied hand held by one of the greatest players. “Greatest” because when Truth asked her to fold, she set down her hand in absolute humility.