No Beating Around the Bush
Neil Young and Ministry Take Aim at El Presidente

I really don’t like George W. Bush.

I thought I’d get that out early, before anyone accuses me of the bias that is certainly going to be present in this column. I think there’s certainly plenty of evidence to support naming Bush our worst president in recent memory, if not ever. At every opportunity, the man has shown a failure of leadership, of character, and of honesty. The most recent controversy regarding the NSA and phone records of thousands of Americans is just the latest – to tell you the truth, it didn’t really surprise me at all. Bush and his administration have shown a consistent willingness, if not eagerness, to shit on the Constitution whenever possible.

So yeah, I’m not his biggest fan. And I have to admit that I get a small charge out of anything that strikes back at his particular brand of Orwellian subterfuge and Barney Fife-ian incompetence. I find it hard to believe, for example, that I knew about Hurricane Katrina and its effects on New Orleans before the president, but there you go. The man can’t even be bothered to turn on CNN while people are dying. I’m amazed that he still has defenders. But then, I’m amazed that people watch American Idol, so I’m probably not the best judge.

Still, my political position used to be pretty moderate, fairly central – I’m fiscally conservative and socially liberal, I used to say. But thanks to this bizarre and seemingly unchallenged hijacking of the right wing by frothing, angry, intolerant nutjobs, what used to be considered right-of-center is now moderate, and I find myself labeled a loony liberal pretty often. The left has been scrunched down into a smaller space, and I find I’ve been shoved into it, sitting next to the likes of Al Franken and the guy who made Loose Change.

Thankfully, it’s becoming more and more acceptable to think Bush is an idiot. In recent years, left-leaning thinkers with something to say had to out-shout Fox News, but lately, what I like to call the “sense and reason” point of view has made some headway. Approval numbers are way down, The Daily Show is wonderfully popular, and even the Republicans are distancing themselves from the Bush administration.

Quite literally my favorite thing about America is it offers us the ability to speak out against our government (or anyone, really) if we feel we should. I don’t agree with the guy who made Loose Change (Alex Jones is his name), but I’m grateful we live in a country where the very act of putting that short film together doesn’t land someone in jail. Similarly, I’m glad Ann Coulter can continue to spout off. I just wish fewer people would pay attention to her.

If we lived under the same rules as many Middle Eastern countries, the two records I have to review this week would probably get their authors sentenced to death. They are both angry responses to Bush’s America, and they both take some cheap shots at his expense. I can’t deny that those cheap shots made me smile, though let’s be clear – neither of these are measured, rational arguments against the Bush administration and its policies. They are both simplistic doses of rage, which for some remains the only sane response to five years of insanity.

Take Neil Young, for example. Despite being from Canada, Young has never shied away from explicitly and specifically commenting on American politics, from his 1971 hit “Ohio” (with Crosby, Stills and Nash) to his 2002 response to September 11, “Let’s Roll.” But he’s never made an album quite like Living With War, his explosive tirade against King Bush II and his unprovoked invasion of Iraq. Recorded in a matter of days, War is defiantly a product of its time, a protest album that will mark off this specific year, no matter when it’s played.

For this record, Young has matched his trademark snarling guitar with a 100-voice choir, presumably to symbolize the voice of the people. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s an interesting choice, given this president’s southern Gospel leanings. At times, it’s like the most politically charged church service you’ll ever hear, with Young’s high-pitched wail collapsing into the arms of the choir after a fire-and-brimstone sermon full of righteousness.

But “judge not, lest you be judged” is not the verse of the day, and Young does a whole lot of judging here. The quick turnaround time is apparent in the lyrics, which are as subtle as Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” banner. “How do you pay for war and leave us dyin’,” he charges. “You could do so much more, you’re not even tryin.’” That’s from “The Restless Consumer,” which pivots on a repeated bellow of “Don’t need no more lies.”

“Shock and Awe” is as you’d expect, a look back on when we thought we’d be out of Iraq in a few weeks. “History was the cruel judge of overconfidence, back in the days of shock and awe,” Young spits. “Flags of Freedom” is about young men going off to war, while “Families” is about the people they leave behind. It’s all written in plain-spoken language, the furthest thing from poetic, and while the anger comes through, there’s sadly very little art to it. As a statement, it’s mostly successful, but as an album of songs, it’s graceless.

And that goes double for “Let’s Impeach the President,” the album’s most directly aimed track. It opens with a bugler playing “Taps,” then lists off a litany of reasons to yank Bush from office: “Let’s impeach the president for hijacking our religion, and using it to get elected, dividing our country into colors and still leaving black people neglected…” It’s a sharp tune, at one point wondering aloud if New Orleans would have been any safer if Al Qaeda had blown up the levees instead of Katrina overflowing them. “Was someone just not home that day?” he asks, not expecting an answer. The song also contains numerous sound clips of Bush contradicting himself, over which the choir chants “flip… flop… flip… flop…”

For all its unbridled rage, Living With War makes some good points. It concludes with a lovely and optimistic version of “America the Beautiful,” a hopeful finale to a bitter suite. Still, there isn’t much here that will sway anyone who doesn’t already agree with it, and there’s nothing that will stand the test of time. That’s the danger of being politically specific – it irrevocably dates the work. Living With War will soon only be a historical mile marker, and as the period it documents is not one I’m looking forward to reliving, I don’t know how often I will listen to this once 2009 rolls around.

But hell, three years is a decent shelf life for any pop record these days. And Young is not alone in his willingness to let current events brand his work. For Al Jourgensen, it’s almost a trademark – his band Ministry has been one of the most consistent voices of dissent against Bushes of all ages. In fact, it’s not so far off the mark to say that his band sucks when there isn’t a Republican in office – they were born in the Reagan years, really started kicking ass during King Bush I’s reign, and were just hitting their stride in 1992 with Psalm 69 when Bill Clinton was elected.

And they spent the next eight years floundering about, looking for something to stoke their rage. They only made two albums during Clinton’s terms in office, 1995’s Filth Pig and 1999’s The Dark Side of the Spoon, and they were both uninspired, limp affairs. Seriously, no one wants to hear Ministry cover Bob Dylan. They want to hear Al Jourgensen screaming his lungs out about injustice and the rape of America, over piledriver electronic drums and the fastest and most abrasive guitars this side of Slayer.

But lo and behold, as soon as W. was elected, Ministry started to kick ass again. Jourgensen’s in the middle of a renaissance, having rediscovered that the tempo button on his drum machine can go way above 100 beats per minute, and it would be hard to miss the fact that it’s another President Bush that has energized him. Ministry’s latest, Rio Grande Blood, even features El Presidente on the cover – his face is superimposed over the body of Jesus Christ, complete with crown of thorns and bleeding side, bursting out of an oil drum while B-2 bombers fly ominously overhead.

In case you missed the subtle point, the lyrics of Rio Grande Blood rip the Bush administration from a thousand angles, some of them (I hate that I’m about to say this) a little unfair. The title track opens the record with a Ministry staple – sampled sound bites of the president. However, unlike those that cropped up all over Rantology, these are spliced together to form entirely new sentences: “I’ve adopted sophisticated terrorist tactics. I am a weapon of mass destruction, and I am a brutal dictator. And I’m evil.”

It’s very funny, on a gut level, and some of Jourgensen’s later charges are right on. (“Squeezing the middle class whom I detest, taxing the poor so the rich can invest…”) I just can’t help but think that Bush has said enough self-incriminating and scary things without needing a cut-and-paste job.

But that kind of thinking defeats the purpose of a one-sided screed like Rio Grande Blood. “Fear is Big Business” smacks down the culture of paranoia the Bushies have fostered (“I was never scared of Saddam Hussein, the U.S. Government’s the one to blame”), and “Palestina” takes on terrorism by slipping into the mind of a Palestinian girl with a bomb on her belt. “Ass Clown” even includes contributions from Jello Biafra, always a potent political observer.

Elsewhere, however, Jourgensen straps on his tinfoil hat and starts making unfounded accusations. On the closing epic “Khyber Pass,” he wonders where Bin Ladin is: “Some say he’s livin’ at the Khyber Pass, others say he’s at the Bushes’ ranch…” And on “Lieslieslies,” he even samples the aforementioned Alex Jones and his theories about the government collapsing the World Trade Center and hitting the Pentagon with a guided missile. “We want some answers and all that we get is some kind of shit about a terrorist threat,” Jourgensen growls, while Jones asks derisively, “Do you still think that jet fuel brought down the World Trade Center?”

And here’s where I have to draw something of a line, because as much as I despise Bush and his cronies, I really can’t imagine them killing 3,000 Americans just to nail Saddam Hussein. Can’t do it. It’s unfortunate, because I think Jourgensen is right about so many other things here. And it’s possible he’s play-acting and I’m overreacting to it, but I wanted to love Rio Grande Blood, and instead I’m stuck with just liking it a lot.

Luckily, it’s often difficult to make out what Jourgensen is saying, and as a titanic slab of industrial metal, the album is the best damn thing he’s done since 1992. Ministry now includes former Prong guitarist Tommy Victor on six-string, shredding along with the machines, and the sound is amazing – tight, powerful, vicious and spiteful. Can a guitar tone sound spiteful? This one does. Ministry under Bush II is a different animal than under Bush I – more straight metal madness than mechanical precision – but the fire is the same. If anything, Rio Grande Blood is more venomous than this band has been before, and that it doesn’t implode under the weight of its own bile is impressive.

Jourgensen has said that this album is part two of his final trilogy. Part one, Houses of the Mole, came out in 2004, and the concluding chapter, tentatively titled The Last Sucker, is slated for 2008. It’s an election year, you see, and Jourgensen expects the Republicans to be soundly defeated. And he’d rather retire than go through the Clinton years again, musically speaking. The hope is, once the last Ministry album comes out, we won’t need him anymore – we’ll be smart enough to make better decisions, elect better people, and dig ourselves out of the mess we’re in.

But just in case, I’m sure he (and others) will be watching.

Next week, some strange bedfellows.

See you in line Tuesday morning.