Uh-Oh, Protest Rock Comes to Town
The trouble with protest songs (and, of course, protest albums) is that it's very easy to either praise or dismiss the songs owing not to their quality but to their stance. Yet the protest song is very much a thing of the past. Gone are the days of rock-and-roll senators who really could make a difference in the world (or at least the public perception of the world) with a few caustic verses set to an uncompromising cycle of simple chords. Now protest rock has become a curio. It's an artifact...a throwback. And its current impact is questionable at best.
But here we are, with full-fledged all-out protest albums released just months apart by two very important (and very influential) artists. What do we make of this? What's the connection? Most importantly, are the albums actually any good?
I'm speaking of The Flaming Lips' At War With the Mystics and Neil Young's Living With War. These are two of my favorite musicians. I was anticipating both.
Considering that both albums address the same issues (the Bush administration and its very doubtful honesty, security and humanity) and that both records fall on the same side of the debate, the approaches taken could not be more different.
At War With the Mystics by The Flaming Lips
It's been four years since Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, a breakthrough album in every sense of the word for the Lips. Their follow-up has been hotly anticipated but with the exception of a few remix EPs the band has been utterly silent.
Which is almost criminal, because the "new" songs included on those EPs were brilliant. They gave hints that whatever the Lips were working on, it was going to be big. Songs like "Assassination of the Sun" on the Ego Tripping EP made it clear that they did not peak with Yoshimi, that it was instead one glorious stepping stone that would lead to something truly groundbreaking.
Instead the dust has settled, and we have At War With the Mystics, which sort of dances circles around itself without making any progress whatsoever, either forward or backward. It's comfortable running in circles, which is something the Lips have never been comfortable doing before. At War With the Mystics is exactly as disappointing as Yoshimi was thrilling.
I can say, though, that I am not comparing Mystics to Yoshimi when I decide it's a disappointment; I am referring to Mystics alone...very few albums can stand up against a previous masterpiece and be successful. I am aware of that. When I say that Mystics is a let-down, I mean that Mystics, with or without anything that may have come before, is a let-down.
It opens well enough with The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song...it's catchy. It has a great chorus. But repeated listenings really make its shortcomings obvious. The heavy-handedness of the song becomes almost intolerable. If you haven't heard The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song I can paraphrase it for you here: those in power make bad decisions; would you also make those bad decisions?
Does it matter? Of course it doesn't. The fact that powerfigures make selfish decisions is nothing new, clever, or groundbreaking in any way. That doesn't mean you can't do anything new, clever or groundbreaking with the idea, of course, but The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song doesn't. It wallows in its singular idea (written as closed-mindedly as those it criticizes) and eventually dissolves upon itself without having accomplished much of anything along the way. It's a good three minutes of catchy pop, but that's all it is...and the fact that it's reaching for so much more only makes it that much more painful.
The second song is much more successful, and is probably the album's only real direct hit. Free Radicals features Wayne Coyne singing like Prince but with the social consciousness of Bob Dylan. The music is inventive (it's got a plodding, mechanical rhythm that would be as appropriate at a nightclub as it would at a funeral) and the lyrics, though nothing ingenious, are sold by Coyne's emotion. This is a very good song and it's clear that the album could have been so much better if as much care were taken with the other songs.
From here the album really does fall apart; more than half of the songs are not even worth mentioning, as though the Lips' experimentation is always interesting, the songs themselves are unsalvageable. The absolute worst of these are Mr. Ambulance Driver (which against all common sense and taste was somehow released as a single) and Haven't Got a Clue, with lyrics so unquestionably bad they make me sick just to think about. "Every time you state your case the more I want to punch your face." For the love of God. And if that weren't bad enough, we then get to hear Coyne impersonating the sounds that would be heard during such face-punching, spelled out in the lyrics sheet as BBVVVDDTTT, BBVVVDDTTT! This is bad, kids. This is real bad.
A few other songs do manage to rescue themselves from being quite so awful. Namely The Wizard Turns On..., which is a great sonic instrumental that is utterly out of place on such an agenda-driven album as this, Vein of Stars, which manages to be marginally philosophical without being particularly irritating, and It Overtakes Me, which would probably be a great rocker if some more time were spent on the lyrics. ("It wakes and bakes me," does it? BBVVVDDTTT, BBVVVDDTTT!)
Before I move on to the next album, let me make one thing clear: I understand that the Lips have never been a very lyrically inventive band. I have been a fan for years and I understand what to expect from them. Musically they are amazing, but lyrically they have always fallen short. The problem is, though, that on such a socially-motivated album, one with a clear and obvious agenda, lyrics do matter, whether you like it or not, and they will be scrutinized. Writing a protest album without at least passable lyrics is very much akin to playing in an orchestra without knowing how to read sheet music. It's a prerequisite. Coyne could have done much, much better.
Living With War by Neil Young
Wrapped up in brown paper like a battlefield delivery (or, as I'm sure was intentional, pornography), Living With War spends no time on production values. Neil Young has sometimes presented himself as full and polished, and has sometimes presented himself as filthy and raw. This album is certainly the latter Young...the one more comfortable with busting heads and making ears bleed.
A complete turn from Prairie Wind, which was delicate, acoustic and introspective, Living With War is an uncompromising powerhouse, both emotionally and aurally. Young wins absolutely no points for subtlety, but that's an obvious choice that he made with this album, and it's one that he works very well.
After the Garden is the opener, and it arrives at a shuffle, taking its time, stating its case, shuffling away again. You can almost hear Young getting his footing here...preparing himself for what he knows is to come. After the Garden is a good song, but it's very much a sound-check for the explosion that is to follow.
The title track, similarly, is just a tad understated. The lyrics are excellent in their obviousness, and the album is gaining momentum. I don't doubt for a second that Young recorded this album in track sequence, as you really can feel it building in a way other than volume; it's building in emotion and it's building in conviction. When this song ends clear some space and crank up the stereo, because Young is about to blow you away.
The Restless Consumer is excellent, excellent, excellent stuff. Young, again, is being about as un-subtle as is humanly possible, but he sells the song, and he sells it better than he ever sold songs like Rockin' in the Free World. This is Young at his most angered, most vengeful, most hard-rocking. It may also be the first time a sixty-year-old man sings the word "diarrhea" on a mainstream rock album. Worth the admission price alone.
This heavier style of protest rock continues right on through Flags of Freedom, which is an updated version of Dylan's Chimes of Freedom, a fact that Young acknowledges in the lyrics of the song itself by referring to church bells, and to a young girl listening to "Bob Dylan singing in 1963." Young is effectively bridging the gap between the protest rock of old and also the need for social change that continues. Why is she listening to Dylan back in 1963? Maybe because we haven't had anyone quite so brazen and influential since. Flags of Freedom is not a call to arms, it's a call to morality. And it's an excellent one at that.
The most discussed song on the album is probably Let's Impeach the President, which, yes, is a fun singalong, just as every other reviewer has stated, and, yes, it uses Bush's own anti-Kerry slogan against him, but it's more an attention-getting maneuver on Young's part than anything substantial. It also marks the return to the quieter side of things toward the end of the album...another reason I believe it was recorded in sequence--the end of the album is a natural denouement after the continuous frenzy that rules the middle.
Roger and Out is the last original song on the album, and it finds Neil Young alone, kicking down that same dusty trail that may well have been the cover of the Old Ways album. It's a quiet lament that echoes another Dylan tune, namely Knocking On Heaven's Door. And it's a song like this (along with The Restless Consumer and Flags of Freedom) that makes it very clear that whether you agree with Young's sentiments or not, the album is itself very, very good, with songs that can stand on their own and achieve something outside of social change.
But we're not done yet, because the album closes with a non-sarcastic version of America the Beautiful, as song by a choir of one-hundred average Joes and Janes...a reminder that Neil is not a terrorist, but rather an outspoken ally. Just as he bridged the generation gap in Flags of Freedom, he is here bridging the gap between radicalism and patriotism...they do not have to be mutually exclusive.
Young does manage to create an album that amounts to more than the sum of its rage. He may not be twenty anymore, but he's no less forecful than he ever was.