Note: this was originally published in 2008, in The Cauldron
This being election week and all, it seemed appropriate to venture into some of the more political music out there – and these days, there is hardly a shortage. From Fat Wreck Chords’ Rock Against Bush samplers, to hip-hop activists like Jurassic 5, to Punk bands like Anti-Flag and Rise Against, the tradition of music and activism is alive and well – if much more diversified — than in the 60’s protest song heyday. Oddly enough, one of the most vital and recognizable political musicians of the 90’s is arguably the most vital and least recognizable of the modern scene.
I’m speaking of Tom Morello – the Harvard-Educated guitarist for the combustibly subversive funk rock band Rage Against The Machine. Now, Morello’s political activism has never lost a step, but his post-Rage work with Chris Cornell in Audioslave – while occasionally musically stirring – didn’t exactly set the world on fire, never mind the millions of albums sold. So whatever happened to that quixotical soldier from Rage, the man who proudly proclaimed “Arm The Homeless” on his guitars, and protested The Gap, knowing jail time was almost certainly in the cards?
Turns out he’s alive and well.
The Nightwatchman is Morello’s alter ego, and for anyone familiar with his groundbreaking guitar work might find themselves scratching their heads at the stripped-down, acoustic folk music on display here. In his first album, 2007’s One Man Revolution, Morello is often accompanied by a rickety acoustic guitar and nothing else; Morello’s husky baritone blends the warmth of Jakob Dylan with a wizened delivery more in line with Mr. Dylan, Sr. Songs like “Up in Flames” sport lyrics like “It’s in Colin Powell’s lies, it’s in the shaman’s trance/It’s in the cellar waiting, and it’s in the best laid plans.” Morello pulls about as many punches as boxer Kelly Pavlik. On “Let Freedom Ring” and “until the end”, Morello eschews larger issues in favor of more personal tales, sticking with just the guitar. Bringing in a band for his just-released second Nightwatchman record, The Fabled City, Morello picks up the torch dropped by Bruce Springsteen so long ago, and delivers a record about the working-class that comes off without all the heavy-handed pretention that occasionally infected Revolution. Put simply, this is not a record that will tell you who to vote for – this is a record that will remind you why you care. “Gone Like Rain” tells the bittersweet tale of the often high cost of standing up for your beliefs, where in “Lazarus On Down” Morello and longtime friend Serj Tankian paint a mournful, contemplative picture, continuing the conversation without commentary – an unexpected choice for an activist, and it works brilliantly. Stepping into quasi-electrified funk in ‘Whatever it Takes”, Morello proudly proclaims “I’ll meet you now, wherever you are/I’m here until the front line breaks, whatever it takes”
And in his own progression as The Nightwatchman, Morello tells a continuing story – it’s our story, a mutant immigrant tale of unbridled hope in the face of often terrifying odds. Listen to Revolution before you go to vote, and put on City afterwards – if nothing else, it is hands down some of the best folk music of our generation.