[19 September 2013]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
At one angle, Michael Franti’s career trajectory might seem unusual, or bizarre, even. That’s if you take as your starting-off point the industrial-ish group the Beatnigs and the still somewhat industrial, more storytelling/politics-focused Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. Set that next to the facts that Franti and Spearhead had a top 20 hit that’s a favored cover of children’s music acts (2008’s “Say Hey (I Love You)”) and that they’re touring as the opening act for Train this summer. That seems like an unlikely path.
Then again, if you consider Franti’s first two bands as collaborative affairs (with Rono Tse and others) and start instead with the first Spearhead album, 1994’s Home, it seems more logical. Yes, Franti and Spearhead have been trending towards accessibility and universality, but that’s consistent with the populist, community-focused perspective of that first album, and with the “universal love” Marley-esque persona Franti has established for himself since. That trend might have been accelerated by the top 20 hit, but it was already there.
Spearhead’s eighth album All People, like the last couple albums, keeps pushing that message of universal humanity towards the general public, in the form of hooks that could fit onto top 40 radio and get into the heads of even those with no mind for Franti’s politics, grooves that occasionally touch the dance club and populist messages of acceptance and kindness. The album starts with one of those messages in the title track, a Friday-night sort of song with a section that pumps the song up for the dancefloor in a way similar to a lot of recent pop hits. That song seems destined for the radio, as does the first single “I’m Alive (Life Sounds Like)”. Both have cute little references to Rihanna, Beyonce, and other pop-culture touchpoints, but more importantly have great singalong choruses about partying and celebrating life.
To those songs, in the potential hit category, you can add “Closer to You”, a dance-ish love song with spiritual overtones that somehow evokes for me Poi Dog Pondering’s late ‘90s Chicago period while also sounding like a gentler version of something Ne-Yo might chart with, and the cutesy love song “Life Is Better With You”, which appears twice. Overkill, perhaps, but it fuels the feeling that you’ve heard the song before, perhaps in a Target or Coke commercial (not yet, but soon, I am sure). Probably just as ready for popularity are “Let It Go”, an ode to freedom and healing that pairs Franti with someone I probably should have heard of named Ethan Tucker, and “Show Me a Sign”, an it’s-been-hard-but-we’ve-made-it moment of basking in beauty amidst hardship.
In other words, this album seems destined for omnipresence, if the songs take off on radio or at least in TV and film placements like it seems they should. Yet the message is remarkably consistent with every other Spearhead album. 2000’s Stay Human might have been a more overtly political album, with an anti-death-penalty message, but its title could be the title of many of these songs. There are songs that overtly hearken back to earlier albums, like the way “11:59” pairs a global-party tone with the rapped storytelling approach Franti used to lean on more heavily, or how “Do It for the Love” taps into the wisdom of Franti’s mom (a recurring theme in his music). That last song really feels like Home, while fitting thematically with the rest of the album.
Franti approaches mass movement, bodily or politically, in a more varied way than might be expected. Old-school ska shows up in little doses, used as an unlikely get-you-dance tool but also evocative of tradition and communal experience. Love songs to one person turn into songs directed to all human beings. When he sings, “I don’t want to go nowhere unless I’m going with you”, he’s not separating one person out from the others, he’s talking about a mass of people moving out into the streets together, celebrating, even while seeming to acknowledge that the presence of one person among them made a difference on how imprinting this memory is in his brain.
As joyous and celebratory as this album is, there is a bittersweet tone to a lot of it. “Say Goodbye”, the closing track (not counting the bonus acoustic mix of “Life Is Better With You”) is tinged with sadness for people who have passed at a young age, but also for times gone by. The album is riddled with memories, with a romantic notion of the past, and a paired worry about the present (about economic struggles, war, homelessness, the superficiality of our celebrity focus, etc.) If you were a fan of Franti “back in the day” and you watch a video of him singing one of his most happy songs, you might think he’s polished up his act into something that pushes truisms about peace and love without acknowledging the real human pain and struggle behind everyday life. Listen to the whole album, though, and the complexity of life comes shining through. That makes the triumphant moments in his songs all the more so, and lends his messages of empathy and gentleness for the world more depth than they might have if you hear them in passing, on the radio while you’re driving to work or waiting for the doctor to see you.