I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Erin McKeown’s new release Manifestra. The only examples of her work I’d heard to date had been YouTube videos of her performing solo and the satirical black comedy anti-Christmas disc, F*ck That she released in 2011. While I felt fairly comfortable in predicting this latest release wouldn’t be as, shall we say, extreme as the former, I thought it would continue in the same pattern. A mix of agitprop folk music and dark humour, making wry but intelligent commentary on society today.
While there had been mention on her website about a band, it didn’t click in this was a permanent arrangement. So I was caught off guard when the opening song on the disc, “The Politician”, saw her accompanied by the full compliment of a rock and roll band and effects galore. As the disc progressed it became increasingly obvious she was far more sophisticated and versatile a musician then I had realized. While I had previously been impressed by both her singing and guitar playing, not to mention her skills as a lyricist, this album shows she’s much more than just another singer-songwriter plucking on her faithful six string and singing about the world’s injustices.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with that type of music. However, to take the impetus behind it and create something far more musically and intellectually sophisticated as McKeown does on this disc is indicative of an artistry you don’t see very often in pop music. Politics aren’t limited to the decisions made by those we put in power and what occurs on the world stage trickles down into the fabric of our lives whether we know it or not. Without flow charts or pointers, McKeown’s songs go beyond the headlines and issues. What’s done in our name as a country or a people will always shape our society. Like the proverbial butterfly wings flapping here being felt on the other side of the world, those currents are part of our pulse whether we know it or not.
“The nature of the jailer is to do just what he pleases/But when we hang another man/Part of us dies with him/Lock up your soul piece by piece/Then tell me just what love is”, McKeown sings in “The Jailer”. When it comes to arguments about capital punishment, most people talk about vengeance or its effectiveness as a deterrent. Some might question a state’s right to take a person’s life and others play on people’s fears. However, hardly anybody looks at the cost passed down to every citizen when a government kills their fellow citizens in their name. McKeown asks us to consider what’s being taught when the law allows people to be killed. How can we really understand what love is when we sanction murder? When an individual kills another person, it’s a horrendous crime against love and yet it’s not when the state does it? Doesn’t anyone else find that confusing?
Even the more overtly political song, “Baghdad to the Bayou”, isn’t what I’d call typical of the genre. Instead of a litany of complaints or an attack on somebody or something, it expresses the hope generated by the people’s revolts that have been occurring around the world. “Street by street we will repeat/The revolutions of the spring/You can’t stop a people/When a people start to sing”. Referencing both the Occupy Movements and the Arab Spring, the song puts leaders everywhere on notice people aren’t as inclined to be as unquestioningly obedient as they might have been in the past. The last line of the last verse, “We want accountability”, captures what’s been at the heart of each of those movements.
In doing so MeKeown and co-writer Rachel Maddow have managed to bring back the feelings of hope these movements generated. Some of the dreams may have soured, Egypt has taken some nasty steps backwards and none of the occupations seem to have changed anything, but that doesn’t mean people have gone back to sleep again. There have been too many examples in recent years of how a concentrated effort by a motivated population can be a powerful force for change. “Baghdad to the Bayou” is a spirited and timely reminder for all of us who may have forgotten what’s been accomplished over the past few years.
Earlier I had mentioned being surprised by the variety of musical styles McKeown employed on this disc. In fact there’s no two songs employing the same approach musically. Each song has been carefully arranged and produced so its lyrical content is given emotional and atmospheric context and support by the music. “The Jailer” is a punchy mix of R&B and jazz which underlines the potency of certain lines and gives the song a richness and texture that makes you take notice. Musically it captures the feelings of defiance the song expresses and the warnings of the dangers we face by abdicating control of our lives to a few powerful individuals without missing a beat or attempting to manipulate the listener.
I’ve chosen this song to cite as an example, but every song on this disc is a lesson on how to marry lyrics and music to create something greater than the sum of its parts. For while there’s no denying the potency of McKeown’s lyrics, by fleshing the songs out with additional instrumentation and careful orchestration their power is increased tenfold. As part of this release McKeown has included a second disc, Civics, containing solo acoustic versions of the tracks on Manifestra. While you can hear hints of what the end results, it’s like looking at an artist’s preliminary sketches for a painting. You get the general idea, but they’ve nothing of the full impact of the finished product.
There are musicians out there who sing about issues and don’t pay much attention to the music. There’re far too many making music these days who have nothing to say and try to hide their lack of thought behind layers of sound. McKeown is one of the few who not only have something to say, but the artistry and talent to create songs both intellectually and musically stimulating. Not only was Manifestra fun to listen to, it also makes you think. You can’t ask for a better combination.