Shirley Caesar • Fill This House • Entertainment One • Release Date: 6.3.16
Perhaps I wasn’t the kindest to gospel legend Pastor Shirley Caesar, at least in regards to her album artwork for her latest album, Fill This House. What can I say? – I’m a sinner. Anyways, cover art opinions to the side, Caesar’s latest album is consistent. Honestly, does Shirley Caesar know anything but consistency after her decades in the game? The answer is NO. While Fill This House doesn’t reinvent the wheel, WHAT IS reinventing the wheel in any genre, particularly gospel? Rhetorical to the nth degree.
Over its inspiring course, Shirley Caesar’s voice sounds terrific at 77 years of age. It’s amazing that Caesar can still pack such a punch as the voice tends to weather, weakening with age and even more with overuse. As mentioned in the aforementioned “meany” article, the praise for Caesar’s pipes was noted (again, it was the cover art!).
Rather than go track by track, let’s illustrate the crème de la crème. Opener “It’s Alright, It’s OK” gives Caesar a contemporary gospel sound that’s fresh, but not “brand new.” Call this fresh in the context of the state of gospel, borrowing traditional cues but adding a dash of modern flair. R&B standout Anthony Hamilton is a perfect match for Caesar on this “leaning on God” record, with the two showcasing exceptional chemistry.
The tour de force isn’t the Caesar/Hamilton duet, unbelievably – it’s the moving “Mother Emanuel.” “Mother Emanuel” references the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church, nicknamed Mother Emanuel. Why is the South Carolina Church significant beyond its history? It’s where the racially-driven mass shooting occurred in 2015, murdering nine parishioners including pastor (and state senator) Clementa Pinckney. It’s rare to find a gospel song that digs deeper into current events or societal issues specifically, so “Mother Emanuel” has a deeper resonance and significance.
Of course, there are more than two worthwhile moments from Fill This House, but the aforementioned two are surefire home runs from Caesar’s perspective. Other notable numbers include the rousing “He Won’t Fail You,” which follows up “It’s Alright, It’s OK.” Here, Caesar is backed by a choir and allows herself to “let loose” even more than the opener. “Survive This” is as energetic and fiery as anything else, featuring another gospel standout, Hezekiah Walker. On title track “Fill This House,” Caesar as always ‘nails’ the uplifting ballad, amplified by the spiritual choir backing her.
All in all, Caesar doesn’t miss a beat on Fill This House (not going to mention that artwork again…). While gospel isn’t the go-to genre for innovative spirit, there are some moments where Caesar ‘goes against the grain’, whether it’s the memorial “Mother Emanuel” or the tropical-infused “Sow Righteous Seeds” (for better or worse depending on preference). Ultimately, another winner from Pastor Caesar.
Favorites: “It’s Alright, It’s OK,” “He Won’t Fail You,” and “Mother Emanuel”