Anyone with an ear half-cocked in the direction of contemporary rock music should find the name Tom Morello a familiar one. For over a decade, Morello has plied his squealing axe to number of sizeable edifices. While the acts have varied from the essential (Rage Against the Machine) to the questionable (Audioslave), Morello has emerged as a guitarist of virtuosic talent. To further consolidate his stature in the world of six-string twiddlers, Rolling Stone honored Morello with a place in the “100 Greatest Guitar Players of All Time”, and the third edition of Guitar Hero immortalized him as a playable animated character.
On his latest project, known as the Nightwatchman, Morello abandons the familiar guitar heroics of stadium rock, adopting a more low-key but not altogether subdued folk/country alter-ego. While the toning down of rock histrionics seems like a prudent move, it is Morello’s salient politics, his lifeblood, which proves to be his downfall.
The title track (also the curtain raiser) of this second Nightwatchman release finds Morello spouting “I’ve seen the Fabled City / Its streets are filled with gold / But an Iron fence runs around it / And its iron gate is closed”.
Sound familiar? It’s the kind of verbiage that Zack de la Rocha would usually expel violently from his lungs at a Rage Against the Machine gig. Instead, what we have here is Morello’s deep baritone plumbing the same quarry that Rage have been mining for years. While it may work with thundering rap-metal, the easy strumming of the country/Americana tapestry appropriated by Morello is suited to something more subtle and nuanced than his usual indignant activism.
The situation does not improve much as the moments of redemption on this album are in the minority. “Whatever It Takes” benefits from a bouncy Rage-ish guitar motif, “Saint Isabelle” posits marching harmonica on top of an effervescent acoustic jam, and Serj Tankian’s backing vocals — although a little overbearing at the end — heighten the sense of melancholy on “Lazarus on Down”.
However, every enjoyable sequence is countered by a stream of cringe-inducing sloganeering. The refrain “The devil is not the king of hell / The devil is not the king of hell / The line’s gone dead / We’re all alone” on the monotonous “The King of Hell” and the “Rise to power / Baby, you’ve got to rise to power” on the closer (you guessed it, it’s called “Rise to Power”) are painfully predictable. Throughout the record, Morello’s lyrics remain insupportably weighty and all too heavy-handed for this brand of music.
While Morello’s baritone is mostly appropriate, on slower songs like “Midnight in the City of Destruction” and “Rise to Power”, the overly earnest croaking dips past Leonard Cohen-esque depths into unbearable Marilyn Manson territory.
Thus the biggest flaw on The Fabled City lies not within the music, but with the brusque seriousness of Morello’s rhetoric and delivery that veers dangerously close to self-parody. As good a guitarist as Tom Morello may be, it does not hide the fact that his solo records are the tepid low-points in a sparkling career.