Sunny War
Photo: Joshua Black Wilkins via New West

Sunny War Preaches Raw Realism in ‘Anarchist Gospel’

Sunny War is one of the most promising, exciting voices in American roots music. Anarchist Gospel is a testament to clear-eyed persistence and gritty hope.

Anarchist Gospel
Sunny War
New West
3 February 2023

Can music bear the whole weight of our human experience? Anarchist Gospel, folk-punk artist Sunny War‘s fourth studio album—and her first for the New West Records label—makes a case that it should. While our weariness with struggle and division may push us to yearn for the assurance of music that seamlessly ties up all loose ends, Anarchist Gospel is not offering the promise of world harmony that follows from “teaching the world to sing” a la the iconic 1971 Coca-Cola commercial. 

The heft and the hope of the album emerge from Sunny War’s narrative that she artfully translates into a deeply affecting collection of countrified blues, gospel overtones, and rock with dashes of cowpunk. Raw and authentic but never preachy nor maudlin, Anarchist Gospel keeps life’s contradictory tensions in the forefront of our consciousness, whether in the playfulness of the artist’s stage name (born Sydney Lyndell Ward) or in the attention-arresting album title. 

War’s narrative journey began in her birthplace of Nashville, traversing the country to Southern California’s Venice Beach as a teen and young adult before a return to Nashville. Along the way, she immersed herself in music—forming and playing in an acoustic punk band and pursuing solo work —and also found herself in the throes of addiction to meth and heroin. A series of seizures led her to a sober living facility in Compton. She kicked the habits and emerged from the experience with a renewed passion for creating music resulting in a series of albums and EPs. 

The return to Nashville and the recording of Anarchist Gospel bookmark the emotional gut punches of a devastating breakup in Los Angeles and then, while recording, the news that her father in Chattanooga, Tennessee, was in his final days. All of this—tragedy, creative output, heartbreak, exploration, and addiction—are the building blocks of this fourth album. It explores the human potential for art, beauty, and self-destructiveness. It permeates the album but foregrounds itself as a theme in its second track. 

A rousing and rollicking country blues number, “No Reason” is propelled by Sunny War’s distinctive and adroit fingerpicking, which hews closely and dances around Jack Lawrence’s (the Raconteurs, the Dead Weather) grounding bass line. The song embodies the paradoxical heart of Anarchist Gospel, squarely naming the inner struggle War sees as endemic to human existence. “Everybody is a beast just trying their hardest to be good,” War opines in the pre-release press for the album. “That’s what it means to be human.” The song outlines how we are, at the same time, angels and demons. Writers have spilled much ink to conquer the monster within—or at the very least—to subdue it to our angelic selves. 

The way forward is hinted at within the album’s title. Anarchism abandons hierarchies that inevitably require some form of lording over the other and exploit moral and religious structures that separate the world into winners and losers. The message of Sunny War’s new album is one of stubborn, clear-eyed resilience rather than false promises of decisive victory. This base-level honesty grounds the album and draws the listener into the inescapable gray of life. War’s meditation eschews any narratives of conquest. In “No Reason”, she underscores human complexity. “You’re an angel / You’re a demon / Ain’t got no rhyme / Ain’t got no reason.” She’s clear that no secret thread pulls it all together. Anarchist Gospel is not music that leads to neat resolutions. Instead, it opens space for resilience born of clear-eyed honesty about life and its challenges.

Working with producer Andrija Tokic (Hurray for the Riff Raff, Alabama Shakes, the Deslondes) at East Nashville’s Bomb Shelter studio, Sunny War assembled a power-packed community of musicians and vocalists for the album that includes the Lawrence mentioned above, 2022 American Album of the Year winner Allison Russell, My Morning Jacket‘s Jim James, Gillian Welch collaborator Dave Rawlings, Micah Nelson (Particle Kid and Willie Nelson’s son), and her partner in the duo War & Pierce, Chris Pierce. This gathering of talent formed a choir of sorts, inspiring War to place gospel in the album title. 

Songs of personal turmoil and tragedy combine in the album with apocalyptic tracks with a more encompassing ecological scope. In “Shelter and Storm”, the duality War sees in human beings is transposed to an anthropomorphic Mother Earth. Dave Rawlings’ haunting roots banjo playing joins War’s acoustic picking and vocals as she hints at the point of ecological no-return due to human disdain for the environment from which it emerged. In the song, Sunny War proclaims that the earth is reclaiming what is hers. Indeed, she is both shelter and storm.

Likewise, “Earth” chronicles the human lament of a dying empire and the realization that “…Earth ain’t got no lips to say she’s withering away”. Sunny War’s distinctive and adroit acoustic blues guitar picking drives the song, while Micah Nelson’s 12-string guitar overlays the song with spectral chords. The chorus of voices, including Jim James, Maureen Murphy, Nickie Conley, and Kyoshona Armstrong, re-emphasize the quiet intensity of a dying earth and the call to bear its full force. 

The heart of Sunny War’s art and distinctive voice surface on tracks like the weary groans of “I Got No Fight”, a beguilingly simple acoustic number that finds the singer seemingly surrendering to all that threatens to engulf her. Yet, the song is a performance of the resilience of claiming one’s voice even in the darkest spaces. “New Day” is an ode to the ever-present possibility of rising from the ashes. A beautiful poem to love’s intoxicating spell, the song draws from the language of addiction to highlight the risk entailed in surrendering to the euphoria love promises: “You stole the light right from my eyes / Jarred it up like fireflies.” But the experience of hitting bottom highlights the awareness that “every day’s a new day for love”. The song is truly the emotional heart of the record.

Anarchist Gospel contains biting playfulness and creativity from the artist. In her cover of Ween’s “Baby Bitch”, Sunny War highlights the jarring emotional impact of the post-breakup kiss-off song by having a children’s choir join War on the venom-spitting curses in the chorus. It’s a stark reminder that innocence might not be lost; it might be an illusion from the start. This playfulness can be political as well. In the raucous cowpunk number “Test Dummy”, Was seems to hint at possible connections between the proliferation of heroin and crack in Los Angeles as an attempt to temper burgeoning and vocal liberation movements from the margins. 

Anarchist Gospel is a testament to clear-eyed persistence and gritty hope over fantasies of easy resolutions. In the closing number, “Whole”, War reminds her listeners, “Today could be the last you know / Happy’s how you oughtta go.” The importance of the moment and the careful precision her distinctive guitar playing and vocals bring to this project center Sunny War as one of the most promising and exciting voices in American roots music. 

RATING 8 / 10