Elizabeth King  
Living In The Last Days

Five reels

One way to look at the arc of gospel singer Elizabeth King's career is through a Hollywood camera lens. Back in 1969, in her mid-twenties, King was in a car accident, told by doctors she would never walk again. She got home from the hospital and walked, though, immediately vowing to serve the Lord through music out of gratitude for the miracle (Nashville, the country music television soap, even used this kind of situation as a storyline). She cut some singles as Elizabeth King & The Gospel Souls and left music a few years later, returning to the spotlight now after a re-issue of some of those songs, recording her debut album, Living In The Last Days, at 77 years old.

Another way to look at King's story is that of a typical working mom. Because she left music in the mid-70s to focus on raising her 15 children. There's much less cinematic drama in that choice, but it's one that resonates with a lot more people. Because American women frequently have to choose between raising their family and pursuing their careers. It's an unfair normalcy that tethers King's music to the secular world, even though she's singing gospel. She channels the holy spirit but is also earth-bound, a juxtaposition that makes for the best spiritual music.

King's voice is jaw-droppingly beautiful, but similarly human. It's strong, not cutting through the backing tracks, so much as blanketing them. And at first listen, it's easy to mistake King for someone a quarter of her age. But as you keep listening, you can hear King working, pushing her voice out and focusing on her performance. The earnestness is another of the album's pleasures. King is returning to performing after nearly five decades. During that stretch, she sang in church, but here, on an album, she's doing something relatively foreign, in terms of her day-to-day. And while she nails each and every track, there's nothing effortless about her vocals. You hear her working to take advantage of this unexpected second chance.

Producer Bruce Watson, general manager of Fat Possum records and head of Bible & Tire Recording Co., the new gospel imprint releasing this, wisely stays out of King's way. The band, featuring tons of roots talent like guitarists Will Sexton and Matt Ross-Spang, is tight, giving King texture and support but otherwise letting her voice shine. Although given the weight of her vocals, I'm not convinced any kind of production could have restrained her.

The songs are standards from the D-Vine Spirituals and Designer Records catalog. "No Ways Tired" features a huge backbeat that gives the song a reggae feel. King navigates the groove perfectly, finding her own rhythm within the larger one. "Mighty Good God" is slower, allowing King to use a sweeter timbre. "Call On Him" feels like 1960s pop, complete with subdued horns. And "Blessed Be The Name Of The Lord" is the album's most captivating track, just King and her voice, not even handclaps. It's raw but not stark, King in her purest form.

King's two origin stories, one supernatural and the other all-too ordinary, come through in the album. There's the lifelong devotion of a church-going grandmother, but there's also a voice that's extraordinary. The combination of the familiar wrapped in the exceptional, and the way in which King perfectly integrates all of that, makes Living In The Last Days essential listening.