There’s something about hearing the guy who crooned “Lua” scream about political dissent. Conor Oberst is a man of many musical talents, and to focus only on his folkier Bright Eyes outings is to diminish the rest of his work, but one could be forgiven for never realizing that the sad-sack troubadour was capable of kicking so much ass. Oberst has dusted off his old punk outfit, Desaparecidos, for another round of Molotov cocktail throwing rants.
To be honest, Oberst might have been forced by the current political discourse to bring Desaparecidos out of retirement. Payola covers some familiar themes from their first record, Read Music/Speak Spanish, with immigration, workers’ rights and failing relationships all hovering around the raging drums and fuzzy guitars, but Oberst and Co. also take dead aim at capitalism itself on Payola. The opening salvo of “The Left Is Right” has a Springsteen arena quality and Oberst’s first words are, “it begins when we chain ourselves to the ATMs”. Money talks, but Desaparecidos are trying to scream louder. “They’ll be talking us up to the journalists / if there’s any left,” Oberst seethes, convinced that corporate buyouts are seeping into every segment of American culture. It’s nice to hear, considering the best punk bands of late have either been not concerned with politics at all (Fucked Up’s David Comes to Live) or interested with the failures of Congress in the 1860s (Titus Andronicus’ The Monitor).
Oberst’s ferocity in the lyrics (and sloganeering) is only matched by the music itself. He’s allied himself with some old buddies from Nebraska, with Denver Dalley adding extra punch on the guitars and Landon Hedges on the bass. Dalley and Oberst’s chemistry is the glue on Payola, able to sling off shred-filled riffs and more punchy cuts, best shown on the furious “Radicalized”. Oberst seems close to losing his voice as he and Dalley duel, delivering hazy guitar stabs that soon morph into screeching solos. It’s not all messy violence though, Oberst has always known the secrets of earworms, and his talents don’t leave him while jumping into punk. The crunchy riff of “City on the Hill” is accented by a warbling guitar and Ian McElroy’s keyboard comes in just as the song takes off into double time. Oberst’s voice always seems to go ragged at the perfect moments, making the choruses of “Golden Parachute”, “Marikkkopa”, and — well pretty much every song on the album — instant sing/scream alongs.
With so much fury mixed with sugar, Payola deserves some more meat on its bones. Six of these songs were released at least two years before the album came out (the “Backspell”/”Marikkkopa” split came out all the way back in 2012!), meaning that a good chunk of the album is recycled material. It’s not automatically a bad thing, but considering most of these songs run in the two to three minute range, it would have been great to hear some new blistering tunes. Certainly, Oberst seems to have a full book of complaints, and, surely, he didn’t put all of them down on Payola. The album’s most acidic cut is “Search the Searches”, a poisonous ode to the NSA. “I know it seems like we’re spying on you / that’s not what it’s about!” he claims before shouting “We’ll protect you / Swear we’re protecting you!” “Te Amo Camila Vallejo” is on the other end of the sincerity spectrum. Vallejo is the main speaker for the Confederation of Chilean Students, who famously led protests in 2011 over the crumbling educational framework in Chile. It’s the most anthemic Desaparecidos get on Payola and it’s clear why. Seems like these Nebraska hoodlums want similar protests here over our own vile system of crushing students with debts.
The space between “Search the Searches” and “Te Amo” is where Payola finds its zany, yet focused, energy. It’s so politically driven and desperate at times, but there’s a roaring joy at the engine that Desaparecidos run off of. And it should be that way, there should be giddy joy as the old establishment is torn to pieces.