Today is election day, and I cannot hide my anxiety. My mental state is best described as shaky, I’m not sleeping well, I have trouble focusing. The last few weeks have felt like 20 years. I can see 2016 happening all over again, and I worry that this is the last free and fair election I will be able to vote in. The next few months are going to be terrible, and I don’t know how we will survive them.
So I’m writing this in what might be the last weekend of our surprisingly fragile democracy, and I’m urging you, if you haven’t already, to vote. Vote, vote, vote. An overwhelming Biden win, one that cannot be successfully contested in court, is literally the only way out of this mess. Please, please vote. I have to believe that there are more of us who believe in decency and equality and justice. There simply has to be.
Since I’m unable to truly focus on anything else, it should be no surprise that the music I have been listening to lately has been strongly political. Well, I say political, but what I mean is music that is invested in justice. The issues at stake in this election should not be political issues. They are justice issues. Racism and white supremacy are justice issues. How we treat the most vulnerable in our society is a justice issue.
Glenn Kaiser has been all about justice issues for the whole of his career, so I probably shouldn’t have been surprised that he’s delivered the fiercest political album of this election season. But I was surprised anyway. Part of it is that evangelical support for Trump is so loud and so pervasive that I can sometimes forget that it does not represent all of Christianity. I appreciate the reminder that the Jesus of the gospels would not be standing for this, and that some Christians remember this.
If you don’t know who Glenn Kaiser is, it’s understandable. He’s a seismic figure in the Christian music of the ‘70s, but outside that bubble he’s relatively unknown. For nearly 30 years he and his wife Wendi led the Resurrection Band, one of the first hard rock gospel bands, and pioneered the Cornerstone Festival, where thoughtful, innovative faith-based music found a home. I have, at best, a complicated relationship with the movement Kaiser is a part of, but his music has been an important part of my life, and Cornerstone was a magic place for me.
Resurrection Band broke up in 2000 after 13 good-to-great records, and Glenn has since been making music under his own name. He’s a gruff, bluesy player, at home on both electric and acoustic guitars (and lately on homemade instruments cobbled together from cigar boxes). In addition to his musical bona fides, Kaiser brings 50 years of experience living in Chicago and helping the people Jesus referred to as “the least of these” to his new album, Swamp Gas Messiahs. It is a stunning smackdown of Trumpism and the politics of racism and greed, and exactly the kind of thing I needed right now.
Throughout this thing, Kaiser pulls no punches. It’s largely him and an acoustic guitar, though he does plug in for a few tunes, and the stripped-down nature of it puts the focus on his impassioned voice and striking lyrics. “I Hear Talk” alone, all by itself, takes aim at the moneyed politicians who don’t want to see the broken and disadvantaged “on their front lawns.” “The money buys power and fascist prestige and the marginalized get the boot,” he sings, starting as he means to go on.
As it unspools, Swamp Gas Messiahs takes on the form of an old-time protest record, straight out of the ‘60s and ‘70s. “White/Right” takes powerful aim at the racism oozing from the White House, shining a light on the parts of our history the president wants to erase. “Straw Man,” one of my favorites, expands on that theme, taking it to its ruling-class conclusion: “How dare the peasants disagree, we were born to rule and them to poverty, let justice roll from our holy land, our might makes right as we burn the straw man.” This one sounds like a classic Neil Young tune.
“Fake” takes on the idea of fake news, and the man behind that idea: “Reality shows, bank account grows, a fake won the election.” The album grows more savage as it goes on, with an amazing trilogy near the end. “Market Value” is ferocious, its target the “all lives matter” crowd who deny the racism our country was built on. “You Ain’t” drives the point home: “Just so you’ll understand, they will make it clear, unless you’re just like them, you ain’t welcome here.” “The Principal Principle” is the most pointed anti-Trump song here, its lyrics leaving little doubt about who Kaiser is singing about: “At the sound of the last trump, pride before the fall, the most powerful liar in the world will have nothing to say at all.”
The message of this record is pretty obvious: the money-and-power politics of Trump is in direct conflict with Jesus’s exhortations to help the poor and needy, to walk humbly, seek mercy and love justice, as Kaiser quotes in the final song, “Mud and Spit.” How the mainstream church diverged from those exhortations is beyond me, but it’s so good to hear someone so immersed in that culture hold up such a powerful mirror. Swamp Gas Messiahs is a tough album, but a necessary one. In its righteous anger it holds truth: only by acknowledging our sins can we start to make them right. Check it out here.
Until Kaiser came along I fully expected Midnight Oil to deliver 2020’s most political record. If you haven’t heard the news: After a silence of 18 years, Australia’s most politically engaged band has returned. Frontman Peter Garrett spent much of those 18 years serving in the Australian parliament, fighting for the rights of the indigenous people. Like our natives, the aboriginal Australians were massacred and marginalized by white settlers, and have been shouting for a seat at the table ever since.
Midnight Oil’s music has always been a vehicle for social change, and Garrett and the band have taken up this fight in a new arena. Their first album in nearly 20 years is called The Makarrata Project and it finds the band collaborating with native musicians on a set of urgent, diverse music with a single theme. That theme can be found on the cover, a full reprinting of the Urulu Statement from the Heart, a plea for first nations people to be included in the Australian constitution. “Makarrata” means “coming together after a struggle,” and is the hope expressed in each of these songs.
First off, if you were worried that the members of Midnight Oil, all in their mid-60s, might have lost their edge, don’t even concern yourself. The opening salvo of “First Nation” and “Gadigal Land” will put that to rest. They have just as much fire as they always have, Martin Rotsey and Jim Moginie’s guitars crashing against Rob Hirst’s thunderous drums, and Garrett sounds incredible here, his voice remaining as striking as ever. “First Nation” is amazing, built around a pulsing synth bass line and incorporating a rap from Tasman Keith without even a hint of old-guy syndrome. The three-chord horn-driven stomp of “Gadigal Land” picks up that torch and runs with it.
Things get mellower from there, but the band emphasizes their melodic skill on “Change the Date,” with vocals from Dan Sultan and the late Gurrumul Yunupingu. It’s gorgeous, as is “Terror Australia,” sung by Alice Skye. Its tender piano arrangement belies its hardcore lyrics: “Where ignorance and wealth combine to crush the fruit upon the vine, it’s a terror in Australia.” Frank Yamma, one of the most famous indigenous songwriters in Australia, takes the microphone for the strummy “Desert Man, Desert Woman,” sung partially in traditional language.
One of my favorite things about The Makarrata Project is how willing the members of Midnight Oil are to cede the spotlight on their first record in 18 years. Their solidarity with indigenous musicians is more important than anything else here. You get an absolute Midnight Oil classic like “Wind in My Head,” but you also get the full Uluru Statement from the Heart read aloud by their collaborators over guitar soundscapes. This album is a glorious use of the band’s platform to elevate and stand alongside the forgotten people of Australia, and I would expect nothing less from them.
The Makarrata Project, at 34 minutes, is considered by the band to be a mini-album, and they have a full record in the works. If it is as focused, forceful and beautiful as this first taste, I will be even more grateful than I am to have Midnight Oil back with us. The world needs bands like them, pointing out injustice and working to heal. I fear our country will need a lot of healing in the coming weeks, and music will not be enough. But at least we have this.
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One final note before I go. Have you ever had the experience of hearing just the right song at just the right time? That happened to me this weekend. I’ve been a Michael Penn fan since his debut album in 1989, and it’s been so long since we’ve heard from him – his last album came out in 2005 – that I’d all but forgotten what a thrilling songwriter he can be. Well, Penn returned this weekend with his first new song in 15 years, and I cannot even explain how perfect it is for this moment, right now.
It’s called “A Revival,” and it’s a beautiful anthem of hard-won hope. Listen to it. Like, right now. This song feels like the missing piece of the 2020 puzzle for me, the song I didn’t know I needed until I heard it. I don’t know if this will do for you what it has done for me, but it has stirred my heart in ways I cannot explain. It’s so good to hear Penn’s voice again, especially on a song that feels so much like this moment.
Vote. I beg you, please. Vote. And then hang on. We’ll get through this. There’s good news coming. Love is real.
See you in line Tuesday morning.