This is a fork in the road … there’s nowhere to go, Joan Osborne announces at the start of How Sweet It Is. As on every track here, she’s singing one of her soul-music favorites from the ’60s and ’70s (in this case, the Spinners’ “I’ll Be Around”), a focus inspired, no doubt, by her recent work with session legends the Funk Brothers in the documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown. Yet How Sweet It Is shouldn’t be heard as just another backward-looking collection of great old songs, even if they are presented in inventive and grippingly soulful new arrangements. Osborne wants her album to speak to where we are right now.
Take, for example, Osborne’s version of the Motown hit “War.” During Vietnam, Edwin Starr loaded his thundering original with an air-strike groove that battled war itself. For today’s war on terrorism, Osborne makes the song a slow, reeling blues. They say we must fight to keep our freedom, she sings, as if teetering with grief above an open grave. But Lord, Lord, Lord, there’s got to be a better way.
Indeed, with “War” as its centerpiece, How Sweet It Is becomes nothing less than Osborne’s loving response to the mass murders of 9/11 — and a bold-as-love pre-emptive strike against the war to come in Iraq. Aretha Franklin’s “Think,” the Undisputed Truth’s “Smiling Faces,” Timmy Thomas’ “Why Can’t We Live Together,” Sly & the Family Stone’s “Everybody Is a Star” — Osborne reinvents and reimagines each of these hits. The album’s spare yet varied rhythm sections highlight Osborne’s intimate, artful vocals and invest each familiar lyric with fresh and inescapable political significance.
In this context, Stevie Wonder’s magnificent, quarter-century-old “Love’s in Need of Love Today” is revealed to be depressingly, yet inspiringly, up-to-date. After calling out the force of evil and admitting the potential for the world’s disaster, Osborne implores, If love and peace you treasure, then love’s in need of love today. In that humble request, Osborne pinpoints the precise crossroad at which we find ourselves. Her earnest, exposed cry leaves singer and listener alike with nowhere to run, nowhere to hide and nowhere to turn but to each other.