Last week at a bar, I ended up talking to a musician who must’ve been in his 50s about differences between the politics of the 1960s and today, about the ballooning costs of elections and the growing influence of lobbyists and the departure of this year from all the ways we both understood things worked. The talk eventually landed on football, where Colin Kaepernick’s year of career-ending police-brutality protest had just exploded into a public flame war between Donald Trump and the whole NFL. The guy didn’t get why sports needed to be a political battleground; there are spaces, he argued — as others have this year — where we ought to be able to drop our differences and defenses for a couple of hours and share a common interest.
Respectfully, I’ve grown weary of elders wishing the country would snap back to less visibly political times. They were raised in an America engineered through art, news, and the machinations of politicians to believe in and reinforce its own exceptionalism, to cast off civil disobedience as the work of clandestine Communist cells and risible weirdos. (This fall I’ve been binge-watching Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War, which, alongside detailing hard facts about a bad-idea overseas conflict, focuses on the crushing stories of young patriots whose misplaced trust in government lured them into battles of dubious morality.) I grew up watching Gulf War bombings on TV and crack-epidemic carnage on New York City streets. I never knew a world that wasn’t brazenly political. I think the old world was a fake.
With increased awareness comes increased responsibility. “If you see something, say something,” the MTA motto goes. Unblinking access to the sheer horror-movie melodrama of human depravity in 2017 obliges us to challenge our government and comfort our peers, and it’s heartening to watch the many ways people are finding to get the work done. As someone who is hard-wired to seek comfort in music, I see songwriters taking two distinct pathways through the year of cultural and spiritual warfare. There are self-care records, and there are despair records, song cycles you sink into to be reminded that love and warmth are still powerful and possible, and polemics you use to burn off rage to keep from Hulking out and smashing nearby furniture.
I’ve focused quite a bit on self-care records in this space. Over the last year or so, I’ve talked about the Solange, Kendrick Lamar, Katy Perry, and Lana Del Rey albums and their attempts to talk their respective fandoms through the growing sense that the world is charging down irreversibly dark pathways. But this week I’m frazzled by the events in Las Vegas on Sunday night and looking to the new releases from the punk (and punk-adjacent) bands Protomartyr, Propagandhi, and the World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am Not Afraid to Die to mold my righteous indignation.
It’s presumptuous to call Protomartyr overtly political; singer Joe Casey’s lyrics offer more of a thinking man’s discomfort in irrational systems than any deliberate partisan sloganeering. His shouting delivery and eloquent abstractions recall agonized barkers like the Fall’s Mark E. Smith and From Her to Eternity–era Nick Cave. The band makes tense, dramatic guitar rock that often gets classified in music critics’ peculiar vernacular as being “angular.” The sound is both forbidding and pretty, mixing the attack of austere early-’80s English post-punk and the shimmering guitar tones their sunnier descendants sprang on rock radio. Protomartyr sprouted up from late-2000s Detroit, but sight unseen, you’d be forgiven for placing them somewhere in Thatcher’s Manchester.
Protomartyr’s new Relatives in Descent is music forged in the stress of the times that doesn’t bother speaking the name of its malaise. What is plainspoken throughout Relatives is a sense that things are bad, and we’re screwed, but it’s no reason not to try and have fun. As Casey repeats in “The Chuckler,” which counts a chat with a telemarketer as a day’s highlight, “I guess I’ll keep on chuckling till there’s no more breath in my lungs.” “My Children” leans bleaker and snarkier: “My children, they are the future / Good luck with the mess I left, you innovators.”
A similar obsession with mortality and inheritance informs “Adventures in Zoochosis,” the last track off the Canadian punk vets Propagandhi’s new album, Victory Lap, as front man Chris Hannah, imagining himself as a dying prisoner in a dystopian future, tells his sons to leave their father behind: “Boys, I’ve bowed to the keeper’s whip for so damn long / I think the sad truth is this enclosure’s where your old man belongs.” Hannah doesn’t leave his intentions open to interpretation; the song starts with clips of Trump musing on grabbing pussies and building walls and ends with a promise to blow a corrupt system sky-high.
Propagandhi has been sermonizing this hard since at least the first Bush administration. Its debut album How to Clean Everything arrived at the exact moment when punk rock came rolling into the musical mainstream on the back of skate culture and found itself beset by scores of fans who loved lightning-fast licks but couldn’t care less about community or politics. The band fleeced this audience with 1996’s Less Talk More Rock, a biting, political punk’s bible from the lyrics and liner notes on down to the song titles: “Resisting Tyrannical Government,” “I Was a Pre-Teen McCarthyist,” “… And We Thought Nation-States Were a Bad Idea.” They haven’t let up since. We needed Propagandhi to weigh in on the Trump years the same way we could’ve used more Rage Against the Machine during the George W. Bush ones. Sometimes you absolutely have to hear it echoed back to you that every piece of what is going on is bullshit to keep your sanity in check.
Victory Lap is harsh truth and hard licks across the board; “Comply/Resist” serves light thrash-metal vibes and a thoughtful, timely retort to essayist Christopher Hitchens’s short-sighted critique of people who think Christopher Columbus was an agent of genocide. “Cop Just Out of Frame” brings bright melodies, blistering breakdowns, and the story of freaked-out cops at the site of Buddhist monk Quảng Đức’s chilling 1963 self-immolation, which brought greater international attention to the injustices that would later come to a head in the Vietnam War. Propagandhi records make you mad, but they send you off with reading material about how to make the world a better place, and heartening histories of daring souls who tried.
For the Philly-based the World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die, Earth’s real heroes are everyday people fighting a raw deal. This week’s Always Foreign pulls back from the skyward scope and mythical heft of 2015’s Harmlessness, favoring slow-building ballads and still-life glimpses at lives in disrepair over the last album’s pairing of lyrics about goddesses and riffs recalling Northwest indie-rock touchstones like Modest Mouse’s The Lonesome Crowded West. Foreign’s “Gram” lets its story do the tugging: “They locked up our fathers for 20, now they limit our culture to Fridays / You had to work four jobs and use two phones, but the drugstore still ends up with our money.”
Always Foreign sees singer David Bello attempt to balance his own troubles with overarching national ones. At first pass, “Hilltopper” (“Don’t forget the footnote some unpaid intern ghostwrote in your unfinished memoir / About the time you held the world inside your hands and left it at the bar”) seems like a killer Trump dig, but there’s plenty of other interpretations that could be made too.
The record’s split purposes gel over “For Robin,” “Marine Tigers,” and “Fuzz Minor.” The former helplessly watches a drug-addicted friend withdraw from relationships and disappear into the disease, touching on loss and unfinished business as tangible daily effects of the country’s opioid crisis. “Tigers” and “Minor” touch on the Puerto Rican-Lebanese Bello’s family history and the emotional fallout from government efforts to single out and deport Latin and Arab immigrants. Writing for Always Foreign happened around last year’s presidential election, an event whose dizzying flux is branded on all of the relationships we navigated as it happened. Foreign’s reticence to say whether it’s addressing people in Bello’s personal life or big bads making things tough for all Americans is an honest tack; it’s hard to gauge the extent to which our individual strife is quietly rooted in heightened fearfulness and end-of-the-world jitters.
The core challenge of all Trump-era art will be the choice between extricating our own experiences of the times from the specifics of present politics and finding unique ways to reconcile the two. Artists in the pop spectrum tend to choose the former option, each for different reasons. Some believe pointed politics can date a record, and some worry that picking sides will divide their audiences. Others judiciously leave out names to facilitate safe spaces where Twitter President isn’t actively chewing up the fabric of tact and decency. There’s a place for this kind of writing, but there should also be music that makes us want to take our frustrations to the streets and music that makes us want to laugh in haughty disbelief at how far we’ve fallen.