Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Who Protests The Protest Song?

You sold us quite a show
Prosperous land with pregnant glow
Now it's like the Alamo
Nobody loves you anymore

Further to yesterday's posting: the two discs that are currently receiving the most (public) play in my house are Vegas by Martyn Joseph and Just Us Kids by James McMurtry. Both discs have acquired some notoriety for the “protest songs” that sit near the middle of their track lists. That these songs generate controversy at all is cause for some amusement. It brings to mind Mark Knopfler's line from a quarter-century ago, expressed with nicotine-stained faux shock: “That protest singer / he's singing a protest song!”

Fans of these singers, of course, don't bat an eyelash — it's all good. I guess it's the casual listener, possibly associating Joseph with “Let's Talk About It In The Morning” and McMurtry with ... I don't know ... “Restless”(?), who gets a little crusty at the inclusion of politics, particularly if the singer's politics don't quite line up with the listener's. And sometimes the clarity of protest can so dominate the spotlight as to make the song in question the ersatz centerpiece of the album.

If that is the effect on the listener, it's no fault of the singer's. Had Joseph or McMurtry meant their protest to take center stage, they'd have called their albums Nobody Loves You and Cheney's Toy (respectively). Instead, the two albums' title songs are evocative and, after a few spins, unsettlingly majestic in their scope.

Joseph starts “Vegas” with an 80-year-old cab driver, who's moved to Vegas after the death of his wife. The move is described as an act of whimsy and nostalgia, a chance for the old-timer to remember the sunniest days of his marriage. As the song picks up steam, the motivations of everybody in Vegas start to seem more urgent. Joseph concludes with the song's narrator holding on to the improbable vision of Elvis still being very much alive. The bizarre landscape of Vegas — “Blade Runner without the rain” — somehow appeals directly to the most absurd yearnings of the heart. Joseph might follow this up with “Nobody Loves You Anymore,” but “Vegas” has already countered that, effectively saying, “I don't just love you, I'm crazy for you.”

Similarly, McMurtry constructs “Just Us Kids” in lyrical short-hand that hearkens back to the High School nostalgia of John Mellencamp's “Jack & Diane.” Rather than settling there, however, McMurtry catapults into these kids' future: dot-com businesses, Mexican vacations that coincide with divorces, settling for early retirement and watching the kids go to college. “It's a damn short movie, that's for sure.” The song's lyrics and hook (like Mellencamp's) are deceptively simple. And though on other songs McMurtry sorts through emotional geography with a fine-tooth comb, every time I listen to “Just Us Kids” I'm left wondering, “How does this song manage to reach so deeply?”

Or, to quote the “kids”: “How'd we ever get here?” That's a question that runs through every song on the album — no less the “protest” songs. I can't get enough of either album right now. I suppose if we read to know we're not alone, we listen to music for much the same reason.

James McMurtry: website, MySpace, eMusic. Martyn Joseph: website, Amazon, eMusic, mp3 samples here, including "Vegas" in its entirety.

1 comment:

DarkoV said...

Great review of "Just Us Kids" and a tempting review of Mr. Joseph. I've been playing/forcing (down one's throat) Mr. McMurtry onto friends and family for a while. I can't understand why his sarcasm, witty lines, unique guitar style, and sing-talk voice doesn't bring in more fans. What a smart songwriter he is, whether penning the Protest Song or the family lore song (Choctaw Bingo or Sixty Acres.
Keep on pushing him, WP.
And thanks again for introducing me to Tommy Womack, another acidic tongue-in-cheek kind of guy.