It's not often that you'll come across an album that grabs you by the arm, reaches down your throat and wrenches your heart like this one. It'll have tears pricking your eyes, bring goosebumps to your neck, and make you want to holler along in solidarity and hope.
Having won copious awards for her last album, Dynamite! (including the 2014 Silver Scroll for single Walk), you could say Canadian-born Tami Neilson has successfully converted a whole bunch of Kiwi country sceptics. Full of blues, soul, sly glances, and that golden voice, she showcased a lifetime of experience, and a newfound groove, having befriended local collaborators Delaney Davidson, Dave Khan, Ben Woolley, and Joe McCallum, along with engineer and co-producer Ben Edwards.
But though Don't Be Afraid draws the same bunch of musicians around Neilson, it was made in entirely different circumstances. The unexpected death of Neilson's father Ron in February was devastating, and initially seemed very likely to postpone any recording or songwriting on Tami's part for a good while.
In the end Ron's own songwriting became the catalyst for Don't Be Afraid, and the title track, which also opens the album, was the last song he penned while in hospital, later finished by Tami and her brother Jay.
Don't Be Afraid digs right into the grief and anger and disillusionment that anyone who has lost a loved one will recognise, but perhaps the most surprising thing about the album is that it is not a downer. It's full of fierce energy, waves of emotion, and defiance of the dark.
It's a rich tapestry of humanity at its most raw, all anchored by Neilson's huge voice, which isn't impressive for just its power but for her very fine judgment in using it. The dynamics, the intensity, the bite, and the fragility are what make it special.
Of course the ear-catching ease of the melodies, and the very well-judged arrangements (somehow warm and sparse) are also integral to its appeal.
Everyone will find personal favourites, but the ballsy, rollicking Holy Moses is wonderfully cathartic; So Far Away is a perfect sly blues cut; Bury My Body is a stunning, southern classic and The First Man will likely be the most heartbreaking song you'll hear all year.
It's the kind of album most of us will only ever dream of being able to dedicate to our dearly departed, capturing the true meaning of soulful.
Don't Be Afraid
A fierce and soulful tribute