For the past several years, Sunny War has been finding her voice and refining her blend of acoustic street punk-poetry on a series of sparse West Coast albums, beginning with 2018’s With The Sun up through her most recent record, 2021’s Simple Syrup, which marked a major step forward for the Nashville-via-SoCal singer-songwriter. Those records, which introduced War as an eclectic gatherer of far-reaching musical influences, earned War accolades and opening slots for everyone from Valerie June to Keb’ Mo’.
War has always drawn from a number of traditions (Eighties hardcore, Delta Blues, Seventies singer-songwriter, folk busking). But never before have all those styles sounded more seamlessly integrated than on Anarchist Gospel, her latest LP. On the collection, War (born Sydney Lyndella Ward) synthesizes those genres into her very own distinct sound, from the murky swamp grooves (“Swear to Gawd”), warm country devotionals (“His Love”), and textured, hand-clapped electric blues (“Shelter And Storm”).
The record represents a homecoming of sorts for War, a Nashville native, who teamed up with Andrija Tokic, a producer whose elegant touch refined and redirected the 20th century influences of everyone from Alabama Shakes to Hurray for the Riff Raff. Backed by a powerhouse group of musicians that includes David Rawlings, Allison Russell, and Dennis Crouch, War leads the band with her rollicking rock riff on “No Reason,” her rootsy, reverent cover of Ween’s “Baby Bitch” before stripping things down for the sparse, sensitive balladry of “Sweet Nothing.”
War is an economical songwriter, telling vivid stories in snappy, sub-three minute songs, but her writing feels more focused and pronounced than ever this time around: “Will I survive the war inside my head?” she sings in the opening line of “I Got No Fight,” setting up a universe of anguish and alienation with eight quick words. Elsewhere on, “Swear To Gawd,” (co-written with singer-songwriter Chris Pierce) she offers some a masterful character study in her portrait of a parent unable to wrestle control of unruly teenagers.
Taken as a whole, Anarchist Gospel is a powerful statement from a singer-songwriter poised to become one of the year’s most vital voices in roots music.