As soon as “Wake Up”, the six-minute, sweeping, multi-part opening track to Black Ribbons, the fourth album from outlaw country scion Shooter Jennings, was posted to his MySpace page back in January, the Internet murmurs began: Black Ribbons would be a reboot of the Jennings brand (and after the underwhelming ’07 release, The Wolf, perhaps a necessary one) — a concept album, a dystopian nightmare chronicling the last hour of a broadcast by a freedom-loving DJ spinning the songs of anti-establishment band Hierophant as a nameless, government-backed “They” prepare to subsume the airwaves at midnight. Spooky, or at least intriguing, right? Something of a piece with Roger Waters’ Radio KAOS, the Wanderers’ Only Lovers Left Alive, Camper Van Beethoven’s New Roman Times or, hell, even Green Day’s American Idiot.
On paper, so far, so good, even if is a million miles removed from Jennings neo-classics like “Fourth of July” and “Little White Lines”. Jennings certainly went all-out with his vision. The DJ, “Will o’ the Wisp”, is voiced by Stephen King, who rails against complacency and hate between tracks. Hierophant — Jennings and his 357s’ nom de rock this time out — have a backstory and discography all their own. There’s even a Hierophant video game on the band’s website. And Black Ribbons checks in at a weighty 71 minutes. However, Jennings seems, sadly, to have confused quantity with quality, and effort with execution. Black Ribbons is a mess.
Will o’ the Wisp checks in on “Last Light Radio: 11:01” bemoaning that “freedom has failed us” and “this land is their land now”, and lamenting a pablum-filled music scene meant to “turn a gray world grayer”. Depressing, and maybe not entirely wrong, amirite? Will’s solution: celebrate the last night of programming before takeover by “government approved and regulated transmission” by playing the songs of Hierophant, one of the few groups who dares to put truth to voice. (Hierophant (n.): “A hierophant is an interpreter of sacred mysteries and arcane principles.” — thanks, Wikipedia!) What, Hierophantically speaking, does that mean? Surely this group exposes societal ills, pulls the veil from our collective eyes, and can changes the world in the span of a four-minute song? Well, no — it means songs that sound an awful lot like Shooter Jennings songs run through AutoTune, backed by heavily processed guitar and a lot of keyboard bloops and bleeps, and dealing with what Shooter Jennings’ songs almost always deal with: “Only one thing can make me happy and that’s you”, goes the piano ballad-y “The Breaking Point”. Or, on “God Bless Alabama”, where he offers, “There are many roads to follow / The only safe one is the truth”. These are the great insights that will save us?
A few chilling moments sprinkled throughout actually address the album’s central thesis — “They’ve leveraged the sky with surveillance in the name of security”, Jennings sings on “When the Radio Goes Dead”; the half-whispers of paranoia on “Summer of Rage”; the references to tarot and playing cards — but there’s fewer of them than there are old-lyrical-style Jennings songs done up in the silly, murky dystopian new-sounding-style. And I’m still not sure what to make of “Fuck You, I’m Famous”, a 103-second middle finger that, as a few other reviews have noted, is just one Bob Guccione, Jr., reference away from “Get in the Ring II”. The fact that this blast is sandwiched between the ostensible album centerpiece, “All of This Could Have Been Yours”, (a dystopia-free breakup lament) and “Light in the Sky”, a bizarro stab at slowjam, only makes this album harder to comprehend.
It’s a shame that Jennings was so fixated on this concept. Scrape away the AutoTune and the paranoia, and there’s more than a few solid tunes on Black Ribbons: he really sells the hell out of the aforementioned “All of This Could Have Been Yours”, while the genuinely menacing “Don’t Feed the Animals” and T.Rex-goes-on-a-roadtrip “California Via Tennessee” should nestle comfortably against the band’s earlier hits in live setlists.
Jennings does earn a few points for ambition; after all, I’m hard-pressed to name another mainstream-ish artist willing to take such an unexpected left turn on the career path, and in this play-it-safe world, interesting fiascoes like Black Ribbons are few and far between, even if the album feels a half-step behind the times (unless you’re currently holding a misspelled sign about Barack Obama’s plans for American socialism, that is). Ultimately, the lesson that Hierophant/Jennings and Will/King want to share is that Love Conquers Fear, which we do need to be reminded of time and again. But if the medium is the message, the signal on Black Ribbons is not getting through.