Review: Shooter Jennings & Hierophant- Black Ribbons
Towards the end of last year, there was a discussion on this website discussing whether or not Wilco still belonged in the Americana community. I don’t recall if a consensus was ever reached, but the opinions seemed to be split with both sides making well-reasoned cases. I have a feeling that opinions may be equally split now with regards to Shooter Jennings and his new concept album about a future American apocalypse. However, I am posting a review of him here for several reasons including the fact that his father was one of the greatest country artists ever and Shooter himself has spent his recording career up to this point in the outlaw country and Southern rock genres. Therefore, I think many of you will want to know what he is doing now, regardless of whether this album fits into this or any other genre, which it does not.
Before I get into the review, though, I would like to use a quote I found online from Shooter.
“In terms of my fans, I think there’s a group of them that might be looking for me to do something that is just retro or a throwback to what my dad did. And if I don’t do something like that, they’re gonna look at it as blasphemous. But I do think that the message of the record is definitely something that people in small towns can really relate to. There are a lot of things at play with the record, but [for] people saying something is country based on the way it sounds, genres in general were built as a marketing tool, so you look at it and people are going to try and throw it in a category or whatnot, but I’ve always just believed in the art of it all. Just like you said with Kristofferson, people said his music wasn’t country because it didn’t sound like traditional country music. But if you went and got one of my dad’s records from the ’70s and traveled back in time to the late ’50s and put it next to something with country music they would say, “Oh my god, this is unheard of. This is like heavy music.” It’s become acceptable now, but it was breaking down musical barriers. I’m not saying I’m necessarily doing that, but I definitely think that the progressive nature of country music has been lost. [But] I wasn’t thinking about making a country or rock record or anything when I did this record. It was more about creating an experience for the listener”
The good news for Shooter fans is this: the passion that was there on Put the O Back in Country and Electric Rodeo and was MIA on The Wolf is back. The bad news is that many fans who were looking for Shooter to be the second coming of his father will be very disappointed. The albums Shooter has made up to this point have been mostly great and they found him following the family tradition of hard-driving country music, but they did not find him following the other family tradition: breaking down barriers and doing something unexpected. This new album is certainly not country, in my opinion. But it is just as much country as Taylor Swift or Rascall Flatts are and if given the choice I would much rather hear this on the radio. (It also may be the best concept album since Southern Rock Opera but more on that later).
The first thing you will notice with the album is the weird packaging. The front slipcase looks like a Tarot card and features a hierophant (according to Wikipedia, “a person who brings religious congregants into the presence of that which is deemed holy”) sitting under a giant, starry eye. The back of the slipcase features the tracklisting, but states at the bottom, “This material is the property of the United Nations Bureau of Investigation. Theft of unlawful possession of this material will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.” Following this is a contact number where you can report stolen items to the United Nations.
Take the slipcase off and you see a picture of a bespectacled man with fear in his eyes looking out of blinds on a window. The back cover reveals an American flag with the red stripes turning black. Open this up and like a popup book, a picture appears of what seems to be President George W. Bush dressed in a sheep mask handing a black present to a young girl. Keep unfolding and you will see pictures of crows popping up from the case. Inside the folded crows is a Tarot card and the disc itself, which says in bold black letters above a red background, “Killing for peace is like fucking for chastity”. Regardless of the albums musical aspects, if the Grammys still have a best packaging award and this does not win it will be criminal.
Pop the disc in. The first track is “Wake Up”, which I have previously reviewed here upon its release as a single. To quote from that review:
“The song opens with just Shooter’s voice and a piano (which I assume is played by Shooter, as it is his instrument of choice in concert). The voice has a slight echo effect and after finishing the first ballad-like verse, a stream of electronic sounds takes over. We’re not talking about up-to-date dance music, we’re talking about the type of sounds that you have not heard since the heyday of The Steve Miller Band. Below all of this is a bass line that sounds like it could have come from Pink Floyd’s The Wall…there is a guitar solo that sounds as if it could have came straight out of the Rage Against the Machine songbook. Then he begins singing again and the pessimism continues: “Don’t believe that the system is failing/Don’t believe that the planet is dead/They’ll save all the food for their fat fuckin’ bellies/So the starving will kill to be fed”….The track ends with Shooter chanting over and over the line “Life is a movie and we are all actors. Don’t let them edit you out.”
The next track introduces Will ‘o the Wisp, a disc jockey portrayed by Stephen King. I’ll let the character tell the rest of it: “…Woody Guthrie once said ‘this land is your land, this land is my land’. Great words but this land is their land now. This will be the last time your ears and my voice will be getting together because as of midnight tonight the previously public airwaves will be commandeered for government approved and regulated transmission.”
He goes on to condemn most of today’s music as “processed bubblegum bullshit” and states that he will spend his last show playing the music of Hierophant who are the one band the government doesn’t want to be played.
The next track, “Triskadekophobia” contains references to King’s work (“When I check into 1410/I know what room I’m really in) and possibly a message to his country fans (“The queen of hearts will break me/Makes me feel like Judas baby”). He then begins speaking about the reason behind the current mood in this country and he sums it up perfectly, (“Fear of God and fear of black power/Fear of the end and the burning tower collide”). Musically, it sounds like ’70s Southern blues rock meets ’90s lite electronica.
The next track, “Don’t Feed the Animals” is just pure fun hard rock. Sexual and tough, like Aerosmith, but with a decidedly modern edge.
What follows is the ’70s hard rock meets Nine Inch Nails track “The Breaking Point”. The song is the best thus far in the album, being a love song with very personal lyrics. Despite some of the vocal effects late in the track, it is a very good reminder of why I began liking Shooter in the first place.
Another interlude by King follows and then the song “Everything Else is Illusion” where he condemns all aspects and all parties of the government over a psychedelic track that sounds like The White Album as covered by a collaboration of Roger Waters and Tom Morello. This is a really powerful track touting that “Love is the only truth/Everything else is illusion”.
The next track, “God Bless Alabama” comes closer to his previous work than most of the rest of the album. The track is quite good lyrically and is dedicated to his daughter. Musically it sounds like Bob Seger with synthesizers and guitar effects pedals. Not bad at all and one of the standouts of the record.
“All of This Could Have Been Yours” is an expression of the pain following the end of a relationship. The fact that he is not recording country at the moment does not diminish the fact that he knows how to write what is, underneath all of the metal guitars at the end, is a classic outlaw country tearjerker.
Another King interlude follows and then one of the album’s most interesting tracks: “Fuck You (I’m Famous)”. I have mixed feelings about this one. I believe this is supposed to be sarcastic or humorous like the “Manifesto” tracks on his previous albums, but it is very hard to tell and I do believe that underneath it all he really feels this way. Hell, he has reasons. He was signed to a major label and they refused to promote him, so I can see why he would lash out at them. But he may want to take a chill pill. As entertaining as it is to hear a grown man repeatedly state, “I like to shake shit up,” the track came a little too close to Guns N’ Roses “Get in the Ring” for my tastes.
“Lights in the Sky” is just odd, but it is not unlistenable by any means. Modern hip-hop meets mid-’70s funk rock and Deep Purple-styled hard rock. I could have done without this one, but, again, much better than and just as country as Taylor Swift.
Fans of his previous work will love the next track. “Black Ribbons” is easily the best on the album. Again the ballad finds him expressing pain and anger and a steel guitar can even be heard beneath the acoustic guitar and piano. “When I go to sleep, I don’t dream/I just see a blank television screen/Man down, tie a ribbon ’round my soul/I’m in the black and I’m out of control….Man down, and I’m drowning in the pain/Face down like a needle in a vein”. Later he says, “Tie a ribbon for the child in me/on every door and on every tree/Make it black for the way I feel/Cause black is the only color that’s real”. An absolutely beautiful song and very moving. I could handle a whole album like this one.
Another King interlude follows and then “Summer of Rage,” a Pink Floyd-like track where Shooter tells of “building mass graves within the state/You and I they’ll vaccinate/They’re preparing us for an all-out police state”.
“California via Tennessee” is up next and it is a great Southern rocker, but again, with a modern edge.
“The Illuminated” is a Black Sabbath inspired apocalyptic rock track (“The smell of pine trees and bodies at our feet”) with Auto-Tune vocals. I hate Auto-Tune but I gotta admit that here he makes it sound pretty damn cool.
A final interlude by King (“We said ‘yes we can’ and for a while yes, we could”) and then “When the Radio Goes Dead,” a more modern rock styled track with some good lyrics and then an instrumental reprise of “All of this Could Have Been Yours”.
I will admit that I may be a little biased towards this album, given that Roger Waters, Stephen King, and Waylon were three of my heroes growing up and I wore out numerous cassettes of The Wall. Again, if he continues in this direction (which I encourage him to do, if that’s what he really wants to do) he may not belong on this website. But for now, you all may like to know what Waylon’s son is up to.
Sure, I would love to see another album like Put the O Back in Country, but I also would like to see another totally acoustic album from Dylan, realizing that this may not happen. This is not quite as good as his first two albums, but is worlds ahead of the third and for that reason I recommend listening to it and am looking forward to whatever he does next. I’m not saying you should buy it, but it is something completely different and you should certainly give it a listen on Rhapsody, Lala, or another similar site.
As a side note, I do not agree with all of the lyrics, but I do agree that there is far too much corporate influence over American politicians and this situation could very well become a reality. I don’t believe this is the fault of the Democrats, Republicans, or anybody else. Its just the way of life that politicians inherit when they get to Washington. But as Will o’ the Wisp says throughout the album, love can overcome all of these problems and is the most powerful of all forces on Earth.