In the continuing musical silence from Springsteen in response to the Trump presidency, joined by long-time members Mark Spencer on keys and lap steel and bassist Andrew DuPlantis, returning alumni guitarist Chris Frame and new recruit on drums Mark Patterson, Jay Farrar steps up to the plate with the second album from the band in two years, one that addresses the forces tearing his country apart and asking what can be done to bring it back together.
Sometimes reminiscent of Michael Stipe, his twangy whine one of the most distinctive voices in Americana music, Farrar sets out the position from the outset with ‘While Rome Burns, organ and chiming acoustic guitar coming together as he directs his fury at the corporate money men “pissing away what others died to create” using the image of interstates as a call for the nation to reconnect, serving reminder that “the freeways lead to the gravel roads/To the town squares and the rodeos”.
More electric with an underpinning drum beat and desert prowling guitars, ‘The 99’ is again directed at “the corporate machines” and the economic imbalance, urging those drowning in the sea of discontent to “Take the stand now, protest and holler/Desecration of the land for the almighty dollar”, the song striking a memorable cascading chorus of how “It’s a trickle down world/Like you’re stuck in cement”.
It’s not all obvious political invective, ‘Devil May Care’ a celebration of the liberating joy of making music, the lyrics littered with technical terminology about high pass filters and compression drivers as well as the image of “a cigarette on a headstock”, but also of its ability to make a point.
Anchored by a heavy, resonating bassline, the brooding, slow-stalking ‘Broadsides’ recalls the historical one-page publications often used to deliver proclamations or protests but extending the meaning of an all guns firing assault as he sings of them being “hurled to capture the truth”.
Taken at a slow shuffle, ‘Reality Winner’ is a very specific reference to the former intelligence analyst who, in 2017, leaked to the media a National Security Agency document detailing Russian attempts to hack voting systems, was convicted of violating the Espionage Act and sentenced to five years and three months. Farrar intends to the song to shine a spotlight on her actions as a true American, refusing to stand by and ignore the dangers to her country, calling on the commander-in-chief to show mercy rather than to punish “those that seek the truth”.
The equally slow-paced title track comes midway, noting the divides in America (“Upstate versus downstate/City versus county/Rural versus urban/Red versus the blue”) with the chorus (“He said national service/Will keep the union together”) echoing his father’s belief that bringing together people from different backgrounds, “every class and every color”, to serve in a common capacity, would prove the “building blocks of a nation”.
‘The Reason’ is another mid-tempo, chiming number that looks for hope and liberation from oppression by taking matters in hand, of how “the fury of the downpour/Can be a blessing in disguise” by motivating you to “get the lead out of your feet” and how “You may need to cut and run”, “get ahead of your demons”, “put your shoulder to the wheel” and take a stand.
One of two tracks that clock in at just over a minute, ‘Lady Liberty’ is direct and to the point as he asks “Lady Liberty are you still here” asking for the ideals on which the nation as founded to “wash away the prejudice… the profiteering and pettiness.” The second is the droning instrumental slide blues ‘Truth To Power Blues’ while, sandwiched in-between, the spare strummed jangle of ‘Holding Your Own’ is the first of two songs that find hope and faith in the world’s younger generation “with your wide angle outlook” and “your own brand of magic” to bring change “like the water washes a stone”.
It’s echoed in the gently waltzing, lap steel stained inspirational ‘Rebel Girl’, grounded in the inspiration of working class women whose “heart in her body’s beating/That is true to her class and her kind” and who, in confronting the grifters and terrors, “brings courage and pride to the fighting rebel boy”.
That hope and optimism about also illuminates the guitar and piano based mid-tempo ‘Slow Burn’ about awakening from “foggy dreams of daylight” to stop “tilting at windmills” and realise that “every tunnel reaches the light”.
It ends with its finest moment, ‘The Symbo’l, one of four tracks recorded at the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa and channeling Guthrie and the influence of Deportee, a simply strummed, brushed percussion and keening steel number about a Mexican, Juan from Monterrey, who built a home in America and helped rebuild New Orleans after Katrina but who, after 10 years, now, branded a criminal, faces, like the waves of immigrants, being returned to Mexico under Trump’s cruel, blind and blinkered policy, Farrar’s voice quivering with emotion as he sings “My children were born/Born in the USA/They say these children/They too must go/But their home is here/Not Mexico”, a slap in the face of the symbol of freedom embodied in the Statue of Liberty.
Unlikely to get many plays in the Oval Office, but an outstanding reminder that Farrar’s is one of the most potent and important voices in contemporary music and one that needs to be heard now more than ever.
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‘Devil May Care’ – live: