There is always a danger when an artist attempts to align their work with explicit politics. This is not to suggest that art can never serve a political purpose. I, for one, would not like to live in a world where Picasso had never painted Guernica or Chuck D had never penned “Welcome to the Terrordrome”. The problem occurs when artists place more emphasis on their message than their art, inevitably tainting both message and art in the process. With some exceptions, the last decade or so of leftist political rock has succumbed to this danger, as evident by such embarrassments as the superficial sloganeering of Rage Against the Machine, the awkward combination of radical politics and stale beats that sunk Le Tigre’s second album, and, of course, the Beastie Boys’ infamous nadir “In a World Gone Mad”. In using popular music, once the most important tool for social change in the world, to recite bumper sticker absurdities, undeniably talented musicians have not only wasted their talent but also have trivialized the worthwhile causes they attempted to champion.
So with this attitude in mind, I approached singer-songwriter Dan Bern’s latest EP, My Country II, with a jaundiced eye. Recorded with his sometimes back-up band the IJBC, My Country II is filled with what Bern himself has called “music to beat Bush by”, a theme that runs through song titles like “President”, “Tyranny”, and the closing anthem “Bush Must Be Defeated”. The ephemeral nature of the collection, a short EP released right before the elections, suggested that it was less of an artistic statement and more of a thrown-together odds and sods collection designed to rally the faithful. Even before listening, I knew that the majority of Bern’s audience, myself included, would agree with the cause, but, if John Kerry were elected, would any of them still be listening to the CD come November 3?
Thankfully, these fears were unfounded. Dan Bern is one of the most creative, resourceful, and witty singer-songwriters of the last decade, and this new batch of songs artfully transcends their political context. The EP begins with “President”, the latest in a long line of surreal, comical “talking blues” songs that have become his on-stage trademark. In the freewheeling song, similar in approach to previous Bern tunes like “The Fifth Beatle” and “Talking Ani DiFranco’s Mom Blues”, Bern sounds like Woody Guthrie attempting to become the next Tom Lehrer, wedding a funny tale of Bern becoming president to a traditional folk context. In the sprawling seven minute tale, Bern incorporates Mexico and Cuba into the United States, pulls out all of America’s troops, and implements collective farming. Of course, he also finds time to appoint John McEnroe to the Cabinet and institute new holidays such as National Nude Day and National Stoned Day. It is a lighthearted opening, which disarms potentially hesitant listeners by mixing a dash of humor with the explicit politics.
After pulling the time honored political speech convention of opening with a joke, Bern spends the majority of the album on a more serious, and less explicitly political, bent. On each song, Bern resurrects the style of one of his influences in order to address the state of the union through a variety of perspectives. On “Sammy’s Bat”, Bern reaches back to Bob Dylan’s psychedelic period with a “dream” song that manages to transform the controversy over Sammy Sosa’s bat into a political rallying point about the necessity of challenging conventions: “There’s a time for Revolution, Thomas Jefferson said that / There’s a time for playing by the rules, and a time to cork your bat”. “Tyranny” is a bright rocker that channels the Byrds-via-Tom Petty, which features, now this can’t be right, Charlie Rose on “extra handclaps”.
The next few songs shy away from the topic of Bush and his wrongdoings to explore facets of everyday life in our post-9/11 world. “Ostrich Town”, a sweeping orchestral number reminiscent of Pleasures of the Harbor era Phil Ochs, details the unwillingness of much of America to pay attention to the world around them. Bern channels Springsteen for “After the Parade”, a moving tale of a disabled veteran wondering about his future after all the pomp and celebrations following his homecoming die down. Sung in the point of view of the wheelchair-bound soldier, he is less concerned with duty and honor than he is with the hope that “the blisters on [his] fingers / Turn into callouses before too long”.
On the next song, “My Country II”, Bern sings as himself, but also for the rest of us, in a triumphant Costello-esque rave-up that rightfully insists that those of us on the left are as American as anybody else. In this surprising blast of new wave, complete with an almost-funky bass-line, Bern speaks up for those who don’t “celebrate Christmas” or “drive a Mercedes Benz” with the rousing proclamation that “It’s my country, too / Sometimes I gotta remind myself”. With the current administration and their legion of spokespersons attempting to discredit those who find fault with their policies by labeling them “un-American”, “My Country II” provides a sharp, and patriotic, response to the “Proud to Be an American” contingency. “The Torn Flag”, a Pete Seeger poem that Bern makes his own, provides a low-key coda to the fury of “My Country II”, while paying tribute to one of the muckraking folk singers who came before him.
Bern borrows from these past singer-songwriters so frequently that he may be vulnerable to critics who could claim that this EP is nothing but talented mimicry. Bern takes the tropes and techniques of artists like Ochs, or late ’60s Dylan, and applies them to the much changed modern landscape, while never sacrificing his own individuality.
In fact, Bern’s own individuality comes to the foreground in the closing anthem “Bush Must Be Defeated”. Opening with an unexpected electronic loop, Bern repeats the titular mantra over and over, with additional asides such as his calling for “His White House bed short sheeted”. Its bumper-sticker politics may seem disappointing after the multifaceted songs that came before, but Bern has actually earned his right to be polemic and blunt. For its first seven songs, My Country II is a rare political protest album that puts songwriting, instrumentation and, above all, human emotion above empty sloganeering. It might just be the most effective piece of political-charged rock and roll released during the hopefully short-lived G.W. Bush era.