“I wrote much of this CD on the road while touring Europe and Australia in 2002 and 2003… During that contentious time, I couldn’t ride on a subway, train or plane without complete strangers berating me about U.S. foreign policy. There I was, with my cowboy hat and Midwestern/Southern drawl—an open stereotype, an obvious target. I wanted to climb and shout from the highest Gothic European cathedrals: “MY EUROPEAN COUSINS! AMERICA CAN STILL CREATE AND EXPORT HUMAN DIGNITY AND PROGRESSIVE THOUGHT. DON’T GIVE UP ON YOUR PROGENY!!”
—Jason Ringenberg, in his liner notes to Empire Builders
When you hear that Jason Ringenberg’s newest is a political record, it’s OK to cringe at the very idea. With few exceptions (most of them decades old), mixing politics and rock rarely produces anything worth listening to. Perhaps by its very nature, a song—which already has its own concerns of rhythm, verse, chorus, etc.—just doesn’t lend itself to nuanced political discourse.
At any rate, Ringenberg’s experiences in Europe compelled him to write Empire Builders, a country-tinged effort at defending his homeland’s promise. Thankfully, it’s more than a strident screed against American Imperialism. For Ringenberg, America is at a point—facing what is far from its first shame and certainly not its last—that it must rise above. Ironically, Empire Builders conveys that lesson best when it ignores the global stage and settles into the individual human level, to explore what makes each man or woman do the right thing.
Things get off to a rocky start. “American Question”, despite setting the record’s moral tone (“Can we export dignity / Respecting those who disagree?”), suffers from a processed ping-ponging beat and sketched out platitudes (“We can bomb most any land / And send their kids to Disneyland”). “Rebel Flag in Germany” features what surely must have been a surreal and uncomfortable experience for Ringenberg, but the arrangement’s loping twang fails to deliver on Ringenberg’s outrage. Similarly, his cover of Merle Haggard’s “Rainbow Stew” comes off feeling jokey (in contrast to the later “New-Fashioned Imperialist”, which actually benefits from a polka bounce driving a list of global capitalist sins).
“Tuskegee Pride”, though, marks the album’s turning point, told from the perspective of a Tuskegee Airman from World War II. Progressing from the narrator’s ambivalence about Europe’s problems (“In the fall of ‘39 Hitler made a mess / But frankly I didn’t see the difference I guess / From what he was doing and what was done to us”) to his rush to enlist, through the racial insults hurled at him by white soldiers, finally to his and his brethren’s acceptance as warriors, and on to his ability as an old man to impart the lessons he’s learned to the next generation. “Chief Joseph’s Last Dream” creates an evocative mood with plaintive strings and inspired percussion that resembles rumbling hooves, as Ringenberg lists a series of images and memories coursing through the chief’s mind as he passes away. “Half the Man” is a pedal steel-driven tribute to Ringenberg’s father, while “Eddie Rode the Orphan Train” (written by Jim Roll) portrays a man rising above his hardscrabble past to raise his kids with kindness and honor.
For the most part, Empire Builders concerns itself with those who build what Ringenberg calls “the truest and purest empires—those of heart and spirit”. That focus on the personal leaves out a lot of the usual 400-pound gorillas like George W. Bush, Iraq, Halliburton, etc., which is probably for the best. Both sides of the political landscape are so firmly entrenched that a subtle end run like the one found on Empire Builders (the most basic of pleas: whatever happened to personal responsibility?) might be the only way to change anyone’s minds about anything. Consequently, the best moments on Empire Builders are the seemingly least political, the ones that don’t evoke war, terrorism, corporate pillaging, or me-first-gimmy-gimmyism. Rather, they evoke the common experiences and choices that we all have, and hopefully navigate with success.
As such, Empire Builders is an uneven beast, with as many stumbling failures as transcendent triumphs. You get the sense that Ringenberg gets to say all that he wants to say, but his choice of delivery often reduces his impact. That’s not just because of his heavy drawl (which most of America usually feels is just cause to write an opinion off as naive hick-ism), but also because modern-day colonialism is such a many-tentacled monstrosity that it could make Lovecraft’s Elder Gods gibber with madness. There’s a reason why Metallica’s “One” holds up as one of the best anti-war songs of recent years—it wasn’t tied to a time or place, but to a personal hell that will exist as long as war survives. The best moments of Empire Builders soar on the simple realization that everything, no matter how small, is a choice.