It’s easy to get lost in the fog of music on Peter Oren’s latest release. He’s got a low and dreamy voice. The songs move at a slow pace. On the surface level, Oren seems to be nostalgic for an earlier place and time instead of modern-day America. But he’s no misty-eyed sentimentalist. As he points out “don’t yet reminisce”; the past was not that glorious. It was a time of dust bowls, slavery, and genocide. Glorifying history ignores its multitude of sins.
We currently live in the Anthropocene period, as the title of his album indicates, one in which human beings have greatly impacted the planet’s ecological systems to a negative degree through the land, air and water pollution that has caused climate change and the extinction of many plant and animal species. “How will we escape this hell we made?” he asks. He knows the answer is not simple. It requires people to take zealous actions.
“Make your grandkids proud / It’s time to throw down,” he sings on “Throw Down”—a call for engagement. Oren’s not talking simple politics. His is a battle cry. Put on your helmet, put on a mask and take to the streets. “Fuck the law,” Oren exclaims, it doesn’t represent the truth but is used by the powerful to keep people down. Yes, he’s a radical. We live in extreme times. Sitting on the sidelines makes one complicit.
These are powerful words. Oren understands that getting up off one’s butt and doing something is hard. The problem is that we have no choice. Environmental degradation affects us all. The solution requires that we work together. “No one need be hoeing alone,” he sings in a hopeful voice. We can create “New Gardens”. There is still time to change our ways.
Oren’s accompanied by former Wilco drummer Ken Coomer. The two recruited Nashville session musicians including drummer Michael Webb (John Fogarty), guitarists Sam Wilson (Sons of Bill) and Laur Jaomets (Sturgill Simpson) and singer Maureen Murphy (Zac Brown Band). They provide an acoustic backdrop that evokes natural sounds, whether it’s the ripple of a cymbal mimicking the ocean or a loping strum of strings invoking the rhythms of the road. Oren sings over them in an intimate voice. He whispers instead of screams. His revolutionary rhetoric comes off as good common sense rather than the words of an uncompromising fanatic.
“Welcome to this record/goodbye to this world,” Oren sings in a slow, deliberate voice on the final track. Ending with a greeting may seem backward, but it makes sense because he’s warning us that if we don’t change our current practices, the Earth will no longer be able to sustain human existence. Oren signs off with a warning. He’s serious about his convictions, deadly serious. Oren is no granola eating mushy-mouthed pacifist. Actually, he may eat granola, I don’t know, but his message is clear. If we don’t change our ways, we are all going to die and take the planet with us. The fact that he can deliver this missive artfully; that he can connect his music and politics through a personal vision, speaks volumes about the immensity of his talents.