I’m not above being superficial, are you? Good. So let’s compare. This new Paul Metsa album, Texas in the Twilight, is — superficially — quite like an album called Nebraska some guy from Jersey recorded almost 25 years ago. Specifically, the two albums share the same musical approach (just a man and his guitar) and social consciousness (American working class gets screwed while the fat cats get rich). Very much like Nebraska. You approach both albums the same way. If you like that kind of thing, then you’ll like this. End of story.
Right, and now here’s the part where I say, “Well… not exactly”. The Texas–Nebraska comparison, while superficially sound and immediately obvious, falls flat on its face under scrutiny. For one thing, Bruce’s album took the musical and lyrical rudiments of folk way farther than, say, Gordon Lightfoot ever dared. Springsteen’s strum carried with it the weight of a million Telecaster power chords, and his lyrics went beyond folkie polemic into the realm of literary composition, mini narratives with beginnings, middles, ends, and epilogues. Metsa, meanwhile, comes off more like a traditional Washington Square Park folkster, wielding proudly unreconstructed protest lyrics like “Trying to shoot down tiny, sleeping children / Won’t put medals down on your chest”. His guitar-playing is similarly austere; just be grateful he’s a strummer and not a fingerpicker, so at least the 15 midtempo songs on Texas in the Twilight manage to accrue some semblance of rhythm. (Length, too, I should mention length: 15-song Texas drags, 10-song Nebraska is just right.)
So Texas in the Twilight is no Nebraska. I know, I know: extra, extra, read all about it. But I make the comparison because, well, it’s superficially sound and immediately obvious, and therefore a good reference point for describing this album’s musical infrastructure. The problem with Texas — which was culled from a recently discovered solo acoustic set Mesta recorded fifteen years ago in an Austin studio — is that its infrastructure doesn’t hold. Since the lyrics are foregrounded, the album’s success is dependant on not just your interest in what Metsa has to say, but how he says it. Taken as a whole, the lyrics add up to a coherent, sane, compassionate view of America and its people. (And yes, by “coherent, sane, and compassionate”, I really mean leftist — sorry to unload such loaded terms on you, but times are tough for us leftists, so gimme the roll.) Song by song, however, his attempts at Nebraska-like literariness sink into the quicksand of cliché. “Party to a Crime” is a rote tale of robbery and murder set on “Halloween night, 1959”, during which Metsa’s character and a buddy off a bartender after they see him reaching for a gun? a knife? Nope, just a picture of his wife. Elsewhere in the album, Metsa spreads the buddy-buddy cheese pretty thick; he points out his universals with lyrics like “If you’ve ever had a true love, you know what I’m talking about”. The dude’s earnest to a fault, and that fault is predictability.
Okay, stop. If reading negative reviews of albums by politically active, well-meaning, unpretentious schlubs like Metsa makes you squeamish, believe me, writing it hasn’t exactly been a blowjob on the Ferris wheel either. But hey — this isn’t a good album, and it’s not hard to suss out why: it’s the form itself that’s the problem. You’re allowed to be skeptical about the entertainment value of a record — a folk record — that was never intended for release. Springsteen pulled it off, but he’s Springsteen. Metsa is plowing well-trod ground here; namely, the type of old-fashioned protest songs Dylan disavowed 40 years ago. As music, Texas is toothless, and how do you expect to agitate them masses with toothless music playing in the background? For genuinely inspiring (and, not coincidentally, rhythmic) political music, better to listen to Billy Bragg & Wilco’s Mermaid Avenue albums, or Sleater-Kinney’s One Beat, to cite a few examples from a shamefully slim group.
Currently, Metsa is banging out hundreds of shows a year. I’m thinking: he’s still marginal, and therefore has eluded the type of social status that allows a person to become fat and conservative, right? So somebody somewhere give this guy some dough and some studio time. Backed by the right band, he could be a dangerous voice in Bush’s America. And yes, by “dangerous”, I really mean coherent, sane, and passionate.