It’s funny how some bands show up right when you need them.
This has been a tough, tough week here in America, as we seem to be testing just how far our democracy can stretch before it breaks. I don’t like being political in here, because that’s really not what this silly music column is about, but when the anxiety of simply living in a place where the rule of law gets trampled and cruelty gets to gloat and take revenge gets so high that I can’t ignore it, it’ll inevitably spill out into this space. I’m having a very difficult time with the events of the past few days, as I’m sure many are.
So I was pretty happy, then, to receive word that after an eight-year absence, one of my favorite politically aware bands would be roaring back. (No, no, not Rage Against the Machine.) I’ve been a Levellers fan since the early ‘90s, when my good friend Chris played me “The Game” off of their amazing second record, Levelling the Land. Named after a political movement during the English Civil War, the Levellers are probably best described as a folk-punk band, but that doesn’t quite do them justice to me. Imagine the Waterboys with the fury of the Alarm, or Fairport Convention with a kick. I dunno. They’re just the Levellers.
The new Levellers album is called Peace, and it will be out in August. Here is the first single, “Food Roof Family,” and it’s classic Levellers. I didn’t know how much I needed this band until they were back. Their music has often helped me make sense of strange political times – their terrific 2008 record, Letters from the Underground, was a summation of and reaction to the Bush-Blair era – and I’m hopeful they can help me again.
I’ve found for me that there are only a few ways of dealing with the reality of our current era, and music is one of them. More generally speaking, though, I think there are a few ways to respond to the crushing anxiety of everyday life now, and lo and behold, I have musical examples to illustrate each one. I’m not saying these are the only ways of coping, but they’re the three options that most often present themselves to me, or that others recommend. So here goes.
- Take a break.
Obviously this is easier said than done, and doesn’t do anything to fix things. But sometimes you need to disengage, take a break, turn off the noise and stop thinking about it. If you’re privileged enough to be able to do this, it’s a valid response. Just don’t stay away too long.
Green Day has done exactly that on their new record, Father of All Motherfuckers. (Yep, these guys are pushing 50 and have named their new album Father of All Motherfuckers.) Green Day has always been a socially conscious band, and saw their greatest success with American Idiot, which took aim at the Bush years. Their most recent album, Revolution Radio, had a lot to say about persevering through troubled times, and its release just a month before Trump’s election was well timed.
Father of All doesn’t do any of those things. It’s a quick record that only wants to get you out on the dance floor. It spans an astonishingly short 26 minutes, and only two of its 10 songs top three minutes. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but this record is largely uninspired and insipid, so the short running time turns out to be a blessing. The singles are probably the worst, so if you made it through the Joan-Jett-cover-of-Gary Glitter-sampling “Oh Yeah,” you can probably handle the rest. (BTW, the band is donating their royalties from that song to organizations that help victims of sexual assault and rape, since Glitter is a convicted sex offender.)
That said, if all you want is half an hour of fun, and you don’t think about how generic songs like “I Was a Teenage Teenager” are, Father of All provides. It flies by in a blur, barely registering if you’re not paying attention, and its one-four-five chord progressions feel like wallpaper to me. But it definitely accomplishes its goal of being a turn-off-your-brain affair. If this whole thing took them more than a weekend, I would be surprised. But as a small vacation from weightier things, it works.
- Get angry.
I hesitate to admit that this is generally my default lately. I am trying to channel the anger into productivity, but sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes I just sit and seethe. And when that happens, I need angry music to channel those emotions. Often I will reach for metal – the new Sepultura is pretty excellent, for example – but for the past few days the album that has been doing it for me was a total surprise.
It’s The Unraveling, the topical and terrific new album from Drive-By Truckers. Patterson Hood and his co-conspirators have always had a lot to say, but I’m not sure I’ve ever heard them so pissed off before. The music is the same gritty country-rock they’ve always delivered (and that former member Jason Isbell does so well), but the lyrics are more specific and more explosive than they’ve been.
The Neil Young-ish “Thoughts and Prayers” is a great example. It is, of course, about school shootings, and about how our politicians are bought and paid into silence and inaction. Here’s a key verse:
“When my children’s eyes look at me and ask me to explain,
It hurts me that I have to look away
The powers that be are in for shame and comeuppance
When Generation Lockdown has their day
They’ll throw the bums out and drain the swamp for real
Perp walk them down the Capitol steps and show them how it feels
Tramp the dirt down, Jesus, you can pray the rod they’ll spare
Stick it up your ass with your useless thoughts and prayers…”
Damn, right? This same razor-sharp fury fuels songs like “21st Century USA” and “Babies in Cages” and “Grievance Merchants,” each one targeting a different aspect of our current hellscape. “Are we so divided that we can’t at least agree that this ain’t the country that our granddads fought for us to be,” Hood sings, and I can only hope that he’s right.
The Unraveling ends with the glorious eight-minute “Awaiting Resurrection,” on which Hood asks if there’s an evil in this world, and then names it: “Guns and ammunition, babies in a cage, they say nothing can be done but they’ll tell us how they prayed, in the end we’re just standing watching greatness fade…” This is a record that swims through the injustices playing out every day and pulls them out into the light, and I am here for it. If you’re angry about the same things I am, The Unraveling is an album for you.
- Stay positive, be loving.
This is, bar none, the most difficult reaction, because it’s not natural. It’s something you have to make yourself do, something you have to learn. It’s a shifting of one’s priorities, a swallowing of one’s first reactions. I’m not great at it. I try my best, but often I need to be reminded of what I am putting out into the world, and how much more loving I could be.
And when I need those reminders this year, I expect I will turn to the beautiful new album from Nada Surf, Never Not Together. If you haven’t been paying attention to Nada Surf since “Popular,” you have missed one of the finest artistic evolutions I can name. They’ve become a wonderful band, giving us tuneful guitar-pop of the highest order on album after album. And now they’ve done it again.
Never Not Together is the band’s ninth album, and their most uplifting and hopeful. Just the act of listening to it makes me feel lighter, like the thick atmosphere of the world has lifted from my chest. Nada Surf has often been a source of positivity and resilience – just listen to The Weight is a Gift – but they’ve never been this giddy, this clearly in love with life, over an entire record. This of course means that the lyrics here are easy to make fun of – song titles include “So Much Love,” “Live Learn and Forget” and “Just Wait” – but Mathew Caws believes in them. When he says “you’re gonna be just fine, it may take some time,” he means it, and the band surrounds him with gentle and gorgeous music.
Never Not Together is a delightful thing. I’m even OK with the return of Caws’ sing-speaking, a la “Popular,” in the bouncy “Something I Should Do.” His rant this time is about empathy, and it works. The whole album works. In my darkest days, this record provides exactly the encouragement I need: stay alive, stay engaged, stay loving. Take a break if you need to, get angry if you must, but react with love as much and as often as you can. We will get through this.
Next week, Derek Webb takes aim on Targets.
See you in line Tuesday morning.