As part of his “Nightwatchman Speaks” YouTube series, Tom Morello explained that he switched from major label Epic to the smaller, indie label New West because “the artist came first …The way that the record industry has changed, major labels like Epic, and Sony who runs them, their revenue streams today are all about ringtones rather than about content, necessarily, and they’re looking for very polished pop, American Idol-like hit makers”. Ironically, though, Morello has made the most commercial Nightwatchman record to date with World Wide Rebel Songs. Commercial enough for a major label, perhaps not, but the very definitive line between Morello’s folk acoustic alter-ego and his Rage Against the Machine virtuoso has most definitely been crossed here.
On his first two albums, the Nightwatchman resembled Neil Young’s solo days, playing straight-up acoustic folk in which the lyrics served as the driving force of the songs, but having now enlisted a backing band dubbed the “Freedom Fighter Orchestra” (Dave Gibbs on bass, Carl Restivo on guitar and piano, Chris Joyner and keyboards, and Eric Gardner on drums), Morello just created his version of Crazy Horse (though he doesn’t come within a mile of writing “Down By the River”). It’s not that the album turns the amps to 11 like Rage Against the Machine or Audioslave, but minus “Branding Iron” and “God Save Us All”, there is no subdued song. Whether it’s the boisterous, riff-doubling rock of “It Begins Tonight” or the choir-heavy “Stray Bullets”, World Wide Rebel Songs looks to be the record that could mark the Nightwatchman’s transformation (or Morello’s reversion).
Lyrically, Morello wouldn’t even pursue this project if he didn’t intend for every track to be a tirade against the government and foreign policy, so unlike the music, none of that is any different here. In fact, coming off his EP, Union Town, which raised money for the Wisconsin campaign against Gov. Scott Walker and his bill to end collective bargaining, Morello gets even heavier into universal (as the title would assume) topics on Rebel Songs. On “Save the Hammer For the Man”, co-writer Ben Harper shouts one of the deepest concerns of the record: “Politics, apocalypse, start to look the same/ The price of my redemption will mean the end of living”. This bleak outlook on societal decadence is mirrored on “Speak & Make Lightning” when Morello states over country flair, “I’m pacing and worrying all night and day/ Neither you or your mama do anything I say”. As is the Nightwatchman’s purpose, he makes an effort to remind society that change is only inspired by the public’s desire to earn it.
In terms of the Nightwatchman’s transformation from acoustic folklore to electric rock godliness, that’s exactly where this record’s primary flaw resides. Though Rage fans could rejoice at his meshing of the two styles, Morello’s musical indecision ruins the integrity for which the Nightwatchman has always stood: choose a side and fight for it. Rebel Songs is too much of a mixed bag, though, blaring hard rock on one track, then walking a bass line with chimes on another, then playing solo folk for which this project’s always been known. It comes across as Morello’s own impatience with the project at this point. Barring that Rage’s set at LA Rising doesn’t end the Nightwatchman’s career this fall, Morello’s going to have to pick a side on the fourth LP, or else he might start to lose a few listeners.