There are two things you need to know before I commence with the review.
The first is a little background on the weird and wonderful history of Emperor Joshua Norton. Norton first made history in 1859 when he dressed up in a tatty military uniform and declared himself Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico. Among Norton’s great acts under his reign, he established of diplomatic communications with Queen Victoria, issued his own currency, and demanded that a suspension bridge be built across San Francisco Bay. Despite being considered at best an eccentric, and at worst insane, the people of San Francisco generally humored him, and he spent the remainder of his life as a minor celebrity of the city and drew a huge crowd to his funeral procession. A simple Internet search will reveal the myriad details of his story, but he has slipped into a shrouded kook cult status in the intervening years, mainly remembered in the Bay Area, but valorized in different pop culture references and even canonized as a saint by the gonzo Discordian religion.
The second thing you should know is that I have personally long been a fan of Norton’s due in no small part to my occasional semi-serious self-identification as a Discordian. The man’s combination of chutzpah and charisma and crack-pot insanity made him just plain cool. Additionally, my political affiliations remain independent in these polarized times, with libertarian ideals and environmental concerns making me plenty leery of the current administration.
All of this is germane to this review because it’s important that I be clearly understood: I do not dislike this album because I don’t “get” Emperor Norton (in as much as no one does), nor is it because I am a conservative Bush-supporter. There is nothing political about it. I simply don’t like this album because it’s ham-fisted, contrived, and often ridiculous.
And the sad part is, I should like this disc. It’s trenchant and political and feisty and silly and irreverent. It valorizes some of my favorite historical crazy men. It’s got 23 tracks! But for all that, the songs of Joseph F. Kaline are simply too blunt and too polemical to achieve the kind of arch humor that makes this stuff work. There’s little irony here, and even less subtlety, therefore the joke falls flat and all you’re left with is a collection of clunky protest songs and random dialogues. Okay, with song titles like “Putrid Minds (I Think We Stopped the Clock Way Back at Wounded Knee)”, “Killing for the Oil Companies (The Pledge of Obedience)”, and “The John Wilkes Booth Fully Privatized Chief Executive Retirement Plan (Why Bother With Another Over-Regulated, Inefficient, Gov’t Run System?)”—longer than the actual track—you don’t really expect a whole lot of subtlety. But, jeez, you know?
Sure, Kaline’s got a sharp tongue and enough wit to deliver lines like “We’ve got the rainforests to graze our big beef cattle / Next comb the Arctic to feed our SUVs / The real heroes were marching in Seattle / I guess I’ll ride a bike and not eat so much cheese”, but it doesn’t really encourage any kind of dialogue. In anything, songs like “Killing for the Oil Companies” don’t encourage change so much as hopelessness. As social commentary, the funk/Americana/rockabilly songs work in their single-minded way, but it’s like being slapped with a pamphlet. It’s even more odd when placed alongside goofy songs like “Old E’s Coming Back”, wherein Elvis supposedly returns to save us from our political sins—as though Elvis were somehow the arbiter of died-in-the-wool liberalism. Or worse, tracks like “Deng Xiao Ping”, a jazzy instrumental that has exactly zero criticism of the oppressive Chinese ruler, and “Oy Gevalt”, a voice-over story track of Jewish neurosis and self-actualization that seems more racist that Woody Allen-ish. Ultimately, it’s more confusing than inspiring.
The things that do work—the four-track “radio play” starring a bizarre barroom interaction between Emperor Norton, Mark Twain, and (for no apparent reason) Stephen Hawking; the jarringly straightforward jazz-pop fusion track “Hi-Fi”—aren’t enough to recommend this disc, even to those hardcore liberal soldiers who love some good anti-Republican hyperbole, or to the merry pranksters who toast Norton as an icon of individualism and reality creation. Maybe good for a Discordian barn dance, but not really worth five tons of flax.