Does the man never sleep? Subtitled Folk at Arena Level, AfterBurn, his nineteenth album is the second this year and ranges from a chugging strum to a 61-piece symphony orchestra. Dubbed songs of war, peace and power, it opens with ‘Techno-Folk’, a one take live recording with long neck banjo and full orchestra, the tune based on the Irish ballad ‘Paddy Works The Railway’ and, taking a cue from ‘In The Year 2525’, the lyrics storms through the noise and events of time taking in Vietnam, Dylan going electric, Watergate, Jane Fonda’s workouts, and, for those who remember, Geraldine Ferraro, the 1984 Democratic Party vice presidential candidate nominee, and ending by observing what little progress we’ve made when “Children sleep hungry every night”.
Tongue is placed in cheek for the chiming acoustic and electric rock strum ‘America’ (“My cabin has cable and DVD…My computer’s an Apple…Watch it crash and freeze”) where you can spend your credit card from sea to shining sea, while, with a musical mood reminiscent of ‘Horse With No Name’, ‘World We Made’ continues the sociopolitical critique (“You make your money and you/Build your homes/And you fight for all your rights/You plan your future and you/Bank your time/You think you’re flying high/But you’re living blind”).
‘The Dream’ is the album’s magnum opus, a swayalong anthem wish for a world at peace that rolls out not just the orchestra and rock band but four different children’s choirs singing in Spanish, Russian, French and English. After which, telling us that “something in the wind keeps on changing”, the war-themed ‘Assassins In The Kingdom’, while still of anthemic persuasions, is relatively subdued as it serves up a cocktail of Dylan, Beatles, Don McLean and Pink Floyd with trumpets and troubadour acoustic guitar it conjures its symbolic imagery in “The courtyard once was empty, but time has turned around/A man looks in the distance at the armies all around/He runs out past the castle, and he’s leading the attack/A maiden lights a candle, ’cause he ain’t never coming back” while the bells in the cathedral play the blues.
Cast in widescreen cinematic colours, that make Jim Steinman seem a musical introvert, swept along on strings, portentous drums and a ‘Hey Jude’-like refrain, ‘Dreams Of Fire’ concerns love lost, youth lost and time wasted pursuing things that don’t matter because “Reaching for a dream, reaching for the wind is exactly the same” and “Only love can stop the rain”.
The swell subsides for the strummed mandolin-driven ‘Benediction’, another prayer, but to a god who may not be listening or indeed not even exist (“your silence makes me bleed/I don’t know what to say/I don’t know how to pray/words do not come easily/Are you really there?”) while, opening on a churchy organ flourish, the angst of the soul continues with the dobro inflected Dylanesque talking blues ‘Young & Alone’ about today’s young generation, confused adrift and lost in a world with “few role models, fewer parents, and even fewer morals”, “choking down your daddy’s bills/The good life became a poison pill/Like a bullet through your window sill/And you’re the one it’s gonna kill” and “your life becomes this empty void”.
It heads to the end, however, on a more playful note, ‘CyberBubba’, JD Crowe on banjo, Kati Penn on fiddle and Rob Ickes on dobro, a bluegrass number about the online dating (“I gotta gigabyte drive and an ol’ Ford truck/lonely lady stuck in your house/I can change your world with a click of my mouse”) and catfishing (“Well, I’m a hayseed of the first degree/a country boy from Tennessee/But on the screen I’m so debonair/I’m a cyber hunk with a head full of hair”), while the swampy ‘Cars’ is about, well, how “People don’t sing about cars no more” because “cool cars died in the oil wars” and how if you “squeeze into a car today you’re busting up your spleen”, taking a snipe at Toyotas (“a little itty bitty teeny weeny car/It’s a fuel efficient automobile made of a whole lot a plastic and a lot less steel”) and Subarus (“the steering wheel will castrate you/the tiny back seat I am told is automatic birth control”) when compared to the glory days of a “souped-up Camaro hemi engine two door/a roomy 8-cylinder convertible dream”. Mind you he ends up admitting “I drive a little 4-cylinder Chevrolet”.
AfterBurn ends with a classic American folk song, enlisting JD Crowe and the legendary John McEuen on banjo for his slowed down, moodier adaption of ‘Shady Grove’ giving it more of an Appalachian gothic feel, a fine signing off to yet another album showcasing the man’s wide range of musical and songwriting talents. I fully expect at least two more completely different albums before the year’s out.
Artist’s website: www.michaeljohnathon.com
An older version of ‘Techno-Folk’: