If this is your initial introduction to Tom Morello’s “Nightwatchman” saga, then you’re in much better luck than the Rage and Audioslave fanatics who purchased his first solo album on a whim figuring he’d tear up the acoustic guitar like he does the electric. This was far from the case on One Man Revolution, which showcased pure Bob Dylan folk with Morello as a man musing about our governmental problems. The Fabled City took it up a notch with some more instrumentation and background singers, but still, the lack of soloing on Morello’s part made his activist friends the only real audience to whom to sell this stuff. Which, of course, was all Morello ever cared about.
This time, though, Union Town tightens up the sound Morello’s been testing with his alter-ego, blending the simple folk he always wanted out of this project, but mixing it with the electric guitar talent he’s been known for since the early ‘90s. On four of the eight songs, Morello squeals quick riffs at each bridge, though not in his signature scratchy vein, but rather in a cleaner, more rehearsed style. It’s a smart move, though, and one that could gain more Rage and Audioslave listeners without losing the point of this project, which this time is to spark protest against Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and his bill to end collective bargaining. Since 2004, Morello has been performing his Nightwatchman songs at various rallies, such as the Tell Us the Truth Tour, which aimed to raise awareness during the 2004 presidential campaign, as well as at Axis of Justice, a series of concerts associated with the activist group he founded with System of a Down frontman Serj Tankian.
This year’s rally took place at the state Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin where Morello spoke and played a song for more than 100,000 protestors. The live version of that song, “Union Song”, is featured as the final track on this EP, and when you hear the guitarist speak before it, you almost think you’re listening to a politician on the campaign trail. That would probably embarrass Morello, of course. He speaks with such conviction and charisma, as though he has personally been violated. “It is my belief that the future of the rights of the working people in this country will not be decided in Congress,” he exclaims. “It will not be decided in the courts, it will not be decided on talk radio, it will not be decided on Fox News. The future of rights of working people in this country will be decided on the streets of Madison, Wisconsin. You’re making history here, and the whole world is watching.” For a brief minute, it brought a smile to my face that someone in his position cares this much. (And then I remembered Season Three of The Wire and grimaced at the reminder that Tom Morello doesn’t really have any actual authority over this situation.)
Still, Morello bellows on the title track, “If they come to strip our rights away / We’ll give ‘em hell every time,” and for someone who’s made millions of dollars and never gotten screwed over by the record companies, he still comes off as legitimate… unlike *COUGH* Bono. The rest of his lyrics match the ferocity of his Madison speech. On “Solidarity Forever”, he sings to the tune of “Battle Hymn of the Republic”, and though a little over-the-top at first listen, the words start to grow on you. “It is we who plowed the prairies / Built the cities where they trade / Dug the mines, built the workshop / Endless miles of railroad laid / Now we stand outcast and starving amidst the wonders we have made / But the union makes us strong.” On “Which Side Are You On?” he conjures Neil Young while carrying much larger issues to the forefront. The title itself questions not just politics and society but the stinging idea of, why can’t we all just get along? The most powerful song comes at track seven, though, with “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night”, a ballad for the folk songwriter and member of the IWW who was convicted of murder and executed under debatable pretenses. It’s a terrific folk tune with the honesty of Dylan’s homages to Woody Guthrie, and it grants validity to Morello’s work as a solo artist.
The Nightwatchman was always meant to separate Morello into two halves, and on Union Town, he’s done a marvelous job of creating two identities for himself. Though his acoustic-playing doesn’t emit the intensity of his electric style, the conviction in his voice is where the true vehemency lies, and it makes you wonder what’s scarier: Tom Morello challenging you to a guitar duel, or Tom Morello picketing against you?