Music and social movements have always been strongly connected. From civil rights hymns to Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie singing for downtrodden day-laborers to Woodstock and John Lennon. The wheels of social change are often set to music that eventually comes to define generations. The job of scoring that soundtrack has been passed among some of the most influential and notable musicians in recent memory, and it now falls to the artists of today. And we need these new torch bearers more than we have in many years to shed light and bring unity as the world and our nation in particular struggles with stark and seemingly insurmountable ideological rifts. Some of them are socially conscious hip-hop artists, some are loud and unapologetic punk rockers, and some are in a band called Woods.
Love Is Love, the band’s 10th full-length album, was written and recorded immediately following the 2016 election, but, like so much of the best music written in response to times like these, it is not strictly about it. Instead, the band tried to make a record that explores the oneness of humanity even in a nation where it seems that so many people have such vastly different ideas about morality, freedom, and truth. The album deals with what love means, what can be done through that love, and what the future might hold. Yes, I know that this is all context and I haven’t begun to discuss the content of the album, but before even hearing the music, it truly is important to know where it is coming from and what it is about because it informs everything else about the album.
Musically, Love Is Love is somewhat bare. It is deceptively simple. Six songs in just under 32 minutes, one instrumental and most of them straightforward, repetitive, folksy rock songs. But within that simplicity, there is depth. The opening title track contains the chord progression that serves as the motif for the rest of the project which comes back distorted and hazy and almost imperceptibly through “Spring Is in the Air” and finally triumphant and sure in the closing track. And the band uses other simple tools — an offbeat-heavy rhythm on the opening track and the correcting of those beats to more natural feel when the motif returns at the end — to attach the music to the emotion and the lyrics. The celebratory horn cadenza the moment Jeremy Earl sings “love’s not dead”, the absence of drums on the melancholy and ashamed “I Hit That Drum”, and the cyclical flow of the album as a whole are musical elements that sound simple but elevate the emotional resonance of the entire project.
But again, this music was written and recorded quickly and written in a state of shock and tremendous disappointment. It is mostly rooted in the kind of music the band was already familiar with before now, and the shared influence between Love Is Love and 2016’s City Sun Eater in the River of Light is clear. Simple grooves accented by smooth horns and sharp, biting electric guitar create the backbone of both albums. Everything is reverbed, everything is surrounded by the slightest atmospheric warble. It is comfortable territory musically, but here the more important elements are the message, the lyrics, the mood, and the tone of the music.
The songs seem to waver between a dismal and uncertain view of life and love and an optimistic sense of unity and support. It’s a feeling described by the lyrics on “I Hit That Drum” where Earl sings about the shame and pain and regret of not having done enough and the desperation to escape but the need to remain present and work harder now even when he’s exhausted and defeated. The album latches onto one particularly resonant message: “The sun’s on time. The sun will rise.” It is a line that stands in opposition to much of the current social outcry that spirals around fear and anger and feelings of betrayal. The kind of social movements that demand people separate themselves further and further to remain untainted by negative influence and harmful ideas. It is a line that also stands in opposition to those who harbor hate and count the election as victory and validation of their racism, xenophobia, and sexism. Woods makes the case quite clearly that this is temporary and that the only way to become better and to evolve past this level of division and bitter resentment is to reach out in love.
The opening track has only a few lyrics. It is mostly instrumental especially near the end, but the line “Say that love is love” is repeated over and over as an undercurrent to the music. It takes on a new quality with each repetition, sometimes sounding like a desperate plea for affirmation, sometimes cynical or sarcastic, and sometimes sounding sure and determined. The line returns on the closing track as a response to a question: “How can we love with this kind of hate?” In this song “Say that love is love” sounds like a decision, a resolution. The band repeats it to confirm the necessity and the truth of it. Love Is Love is a new mantra in the tradition of “All You Need Is Love” and “We Shall Overcome”, one that attempts to heal, unite, and move forward towards an uncertain future with the assurance that if we come together, the sun will indeed rise again.