“The Fabled City” is Tom Morello’s second solo outing as the Nightwatchman. Though Morello admittedly performed a lot of these songs “amidst the tear gas attacks at the G8 protest,” there is, again, little common ground between this solo album and his work with Rage Against the Machine. Though in both projects Morello presents himself as a socially and politically engaged artist, the methods are strikingly different. Morello has called the Nightwatchman as his antidote against arena rock. In tone and approach of the complex social issues Morello likes to address it is exactly that, the opposite of Rage Against the Machine vicious guitar riffs and raging vocals. Morello’s album is more reminiscent of a Rubin produced Johnny Cash album, his voice strikes a resemblance to Iggy Pop, sans the irony, the content closer to a Steve Earle record. On the surface there’s little what links the two projects.
Morello’s inspiration for the Nightwatchman came from a rather unexpected corner for most Rage Against the Machine fans, I can imagine. Explaining the project today Tom claims that “the clear model for me was seeing Bruce Springsteen on his Ghost of Tom Joad tour. I was stunned at how powerful and heavy a concert could be without any Marshall amps in the room.” For Morello fans who view Springsteen through Reagan’s patriotic shades this link might be somewhat of a shocker. But fans who paid attention to Rage Against the Machine’s cover of the “Ghost of Tom Joad” and managed to look beyond the synthesizer layered sound of the “Born in the USA” album, might have found quite a bit of common ground between the two artists. From Springsteen Tom went back and explored the extensive catalogs of Dylan and Woody Guthrie, from where the Nightwatchman started to take shape. Though the two artists shared the stage for a fiercely rocking version of the “Ghost of Tom Joad”, their approach to songwriting bares little resemblance to each other’s work.
Where Springsteen constructs his songs as miniature novel or films, Morello’s songs are decidedly more abstract. Using quite a bit of biblical imagery, Tom paints a rather apocalyptic picture of American society. Though the protagonists Springsteen likes to use, you know, the working class and disenfranchised, Morello chooses to take snap shots of them rather than chronicle the events that mark their lives. Morello’s songs are more like the murals from Diego Riviera, images of working class heroes and victims of capitalism’s shadow populate his songs. Though explicit criticism of the current Bush administration drifts in and out of the songs, the songs keep a certain abstract quality. Where the songwriting at Rage Against the Machine was littered with the same catchy, though strikingly more vicious and rebellious, one-liners politicians like to use, Morello’s albums leave more room for your own reflections.
Question is of course which approach is more the more successful. Graduated from Harvard university with honors as a Political Science master, Morello has always been more of a political activist than he was a rock star, even though his current appearance in the Guitar Hero video came might have you suspect otherwise. Like Woody Guthrie, Morello is a songwriter with a mission. Though lacking the depth Morello’s Nightwatchman has, Rage Against the Machines hard rocking one-liners might just be more effective in getting the attention of a large audience. On the other hand, Rage Against the Machine’s albums have never been as thought provoking as “the Fabled City.” One-liners can be rather off putting in their uncompromising insistence. Morello’s acoustic albums may never reach such a large audience as Rage Against the Machine has, but for who is willing to listen, there is quite a bit more room for developing your own opinion on the issues Tom addresses.
In all, while the record breathes a sense of resilience and rebellion, its atmosphere is dark and dreary. Another vital point where Morello differs from Springsteen, who’s records are always balanced with songs that breathe an enormous amount of hope (though less so in his acoustic albums). Morello’s more skeptical outlook on the elections is no surprise after listening to “the Fabled City”. Where Springsteen is an open supporter of Barack Obama, Morello’s opinion of the man is steeped in criticism. While he concedes that an Obama presidency would be a major step forward symbolically, he also adds :”I firmly believe that it’s the system that’s the problem, rather than one party or the other. When a candidate steps forward who will end poverty and end the war and save the environment and be unbending to capital, we’ll see. Racism is as American as apple pie and baseball. A black president would definitely be a step in the right direction for civilizing the nation. But at the same time there’s Obama’s vow to continue a war in Afghanistan and saber-rattling in Iran. Whatever the voice is in his soul that whispers the good things, there are political demands. That’s why I’m a guitar player and a singer. I answer to no one”
“Whatever it Takes”
Morello will tour behind “the Fabled City” this fall.
About the author: I started blogging out of a fascination with Soul music, Bruce Springsteen and Americana in general. Over at Boss Tracks I'm blogging on Bruce Springsteen and the songs he covered. http://bosstracks.blogspot.com/