You don’t name an album Tinderbox unless you want to light a few fires. Fred Eaglesmith’s newest album has a barnstorming fervor, a fire-and-brimstone vision of what’s going wrong with America. And even if he couches it in Grapes of Wrath-ish folk blues, don’t you be fooled for one minute – this is topical stuff.
That working-class bitterness Barack Obama took flak for talking about? Fred Eaglesmith can cite you chapter and verse.
How can you ignore a lyric like “That God you got is a fancy god / And he’s not the one I know” (“Fancy God”), or “Bells softly ring / Beneath their steeple / They’re selling souls / And they’re dealing people” (“You Can’t Trust Them”), or “The church is like a tinderbox / The preachers got a match / Salvation is a raining down / And falling down the cracks” (“Tinderbox”)?
Something’s got this man riled up but good.
Alongside these satires are the laments of poor working stiffs, songs like “Sweet Corn,” “Chain Gang,” “Shoulder to the Plow,” “Worked Up Field,” “Shoeshine” – the titles are a fair indication of the glamour quotient here. “When you got no reason / Keep on believing”, he sings wryly in “Shoulder to the Plow,” “Doesn’t matter if you don’t know how / Never mind if that horse is blind / Keep your shoulder to the plow.” Fleshed out with jangly instrumentations, slogging rhythms, and incantatory repetitions, they’re the bedrock of this hypnotic album.
There’s more than an touch here of Tom Waits, both in Eaglesmith’s craggy vocals and the noirish instrumentals, which are full of dissonant steel guitars and washboards and banjos. But unlike Waits’ gallery of eccentrics, Eaglesmith’s no-name slobs are deliberately generic Everyman figures. Don’t expect romance, either – the only love song is the poignant “Quietly,” about an affair running aground on depression and despair, the fall-out of lives lived without hope.
I appreciate the fact that Eaglesmith doesn't belabor the specifics; he's less a satirist than a moralist. The gap between haves and have-nots, between true believers and fellow travelers, concerns him more than any particular political issue.
But what I appreciate even more is the musical spell he casts, with an un-gussied-up blend of folks, blues, and bluegrass that's quintessentially American. Having accumulated a sizeable following over several years by word-of-mouth rather than media hype, Eaglesmith may be poised right now to break through to a wider audience. But I get the sense that he won't sacrifice his weathered humanism to do so.
Eaglesmith’s fierce populism rings sincere; there’s no aw-shucks Nashville fakery here, no flannel-shirted posturing. And bleak as his picture may sound in some stretches of this CD, he manages to redeem it in songs like “I Pray Now”, “Get On Your Knees,” “Wheels,” and “Stand,” bursting through with indomitable spirit. Eaglesmith’s insistent faith in that human spark shivers through this entire album; it’s a moving thing indeed.