Review Summary: Morello's second outing as a protest singer is marred by dreadful lyrics and inconsistent songwriting.
While the bulk of Tom Morello’s post-Rage Against The Machine political activism has taken place away from the microphone, with Axis Of Justice (an grass-roots alliance formed with System Of A Down’s Serj Tankian) and various other left-wing protest groups, he has in recent years cultivated a folk singer alter-ego under the alias The Nightwatchman. Perturbed by the United States’ endless fascination with electing conservatives, Morello took his creation out on the road in the run-up to the 2004 election, and when Audioslave finally stuttered to a halt in 2007 he took the persona a stage further and issued his debut solo album, One Man Revolution
. Barely a year later, he’s returned with a fresh batch of songs and a full band: where One Man Revolution
was essentially Morello and his trusty acoustic all the way, The Fabled City
sees Morello and producer Brendan O’Brien incorporate a wide range of acoustic and electric instruments, delivering a much more dynamic production as a result.
Morello’s political views have come in for much scrutiny in the past (The Fabled City
, like all of Morello’s previous releases, comes courtesy of a major label- Sony BMG subsidiary Epic Records), but it’s not necessarily the content of his message or his credibility as a left-wing activist that marrs The Fabled City
- it’s the fact that, for the most part, it’s hard to decipher any real meaning at all from his lyrics. First things first, despite his obvious overtures to Woody Guthrie, Morello the performer is much more in the Dylan vein than Guthrie: his deep, monotone drawl is effective in places, but just as often he slurs his speech and his words are virtually unintelligible. Compounding this flaw, Morello is a painfully average lyricist, relying on vague imagery and lazy clichés to put forth his message. While phrases like the mocking “don’t do as I do, do as I say”
and allusions to good old working-class structures like mines, fields and ramparts might well appeal to his fans and fellow radicals, his lyrics are hardly evocative and rarely thought-provoking.
‘The King Of Hell’ evokes Chuck Ragan’s ‘The Boat’ with aggressive strumming and wistful soundscape guitars, but it’s a lyrical trainwreck. His mantra ”the devil is not the king of hell”
probably sounded more profound in his head, while his presumed target, Mr. Bush, is unlikely to be troubled by his characterisation. Nor will he be too worried about Morello’s pronouncement, in ‘Midnight In The City Of Destruction,’ that ”I pray that God himself will come and drown the President if the levees break again.”
A low point on any album, the sinister race-baiting subtext (“now they’ve cut the faithful from the trees”
) is pitifully executed. It’s easy, it’s crass and it’s thoughtless, and in that sense perfectly sums up Morello’s approach to the album's lyrics. Though it has the misfortune of being the album’s longest track at almost five minutes, it is Morello’s only real foray into mean-spirited, destructive politics. Perhaps he is better off being hopelessly vague after all.
While the lyrical front suggests plenty more work to be done, the music on offer is far more promising. The album opens with two highlights in the title track and ‘Whatever It Takes.’ ‘The Fabled City’ is reminiscent of early solo Neil Young-meets-‘Sunday Bloody Sunday,’ stacking aggressive acoustic guitar chords on top of a sledgehammer drumbeat and reasonable picturesque lyrics: ”I’ve seen the fabled city / its streets are paved with gold / but an iron fence runs around it / its iron gates are closed.”
For all its vivid imagery, however, it’s never entirely clear what he’s talking about and it certainly doesn’t lend itself to interpretation. ‘Whatever It Takes,’ the album’s showpiece, picks up the tempo still further, a funky blues boogie that wouldn’t sound out of place as a Rage Against The Machine acoustic jam, albeit with Morello’s typically deadpan vocal delivery.
The album’s third golden moment involves Serj Tankian reprising a role he should be very familiar with by now- performing backing vocals for a guitarist who fancies himself a singer. ‘Lazarus On Down’ is one of several songs to invoke Biblical imagery and easily the least intelligible of the lot. But whereas solo acoustic tracks like ‘Rise To Power’ (yes, it does sound like something Zach De La Rocha would say) and ‘Midnight In The City Of Destruction’ crumble under the weight of their own bullsh
it, as the truly vacuous nature of Morello’s lyrics are revealed by his dour, robotic delivery (or is it the other way around?), ‘Lazarus On Down’ swims atop a genuinely beautiful arrangement, aching in its simplicity. With Morello picking out a simple minor key pattern on acoustic guitar, the sullen mood is gently elevated with poignant piano strokes as Tankian wails in the distance. Credit in this case must go to Morello and O’Brien, whose smart arrangements throughout the album are generally the most interesting part of any given track.
The Fabled City
reveals a number of things about its author, some good and most bad. As a lyricist he’s dull and unimaginative and as a singer he’s extremely limited: both facts detract considerably from the obvious passion he exhibits elsewhere for his music and his politics. On the other hand, The Fabled City
delivers a couple of unique spins on the generally conservative modern folk genre- most notably ‘Lazarus On Down’- enough to suggest that he’ll continue to deliver material of worth, even if it’s not quite worth digging for.