It’s about damn time someone wrote a song with William Henry Harrison as its main subject. Authored by musicians J. Matthew Gerken, Christian Kiefer, and Jefferson Pitcher, Of Great and Mortal Men: 43 Songs for 43 U.S. Presidencies is an ambitious and imaginative effort that explores the mythology and nature of the American presidency and the men who have inhabited that office. Ranging from songs of genuine sympathy to those of scathing criticism and satire, it’s worthwhile listening for both music fans and those die-hard Millard Fillmore lovers still out there.
Originally conceived as part of February Album Writing Month in 2006, the demos created for that project were eventually pounded and shaped into this current three-CD set, with additional songs added. Somewhat reminiscent of Sufjan Stevens’ various “States” albums, it’s an overall success in the dangerous landmine that is the concept album. Artistic license is taken but within a defined historical context and with supporting historical details. And with contributions from artists like Califone, Bill Callahan, Marla Hansen, Alan Sparhawk, Rosie Thomas, and others, it boasts more collaborations than a Justin Timberlake record.
A variety of character portraits emerges throughout the album. With an emphasis placed on the cruelties and acts of violence committed under specific administrations in the name of progress or destiny, the musicians offer some harsh criticisms for several presidents. In “Benevolence,” Andrew Jackson is portrayed as an unapologetic killer, with God and destiny used to justify his actions against the Cherokee Nation: “I told them we would come and I did it and that left half less animals to feed. You have to understand: We were moving on and destiny had ways to rule the land from one sea to the next. And I did it and they stood in the way of God’s whole plan.” Zachary Taylor is likewise depicted in “Rough and Ready” in similar terms: “Mexico, here I come to tear the line down! Here I come to steal all of your land! With six thousand men I’ll take your twenty down and start this war.”William Henry Harrison receives similar treatment; behind a sparse piano, the president’s premature death is viewed as revenge for his treatment of Native Americans: “The pneumonia will claim his lungs tonight…He will lay there just as dead as smelt. And the Whigs will wither up and die forevermore; well deserved.”
Other presidents are depicted as, well, egotistical bastards and as silver-tongued as a swampland salesman. Backed by a colonial marching tune, Washington Dreams of the Hippopotamus paints a decidedly unflattering account of the first president. Part swindler and part schemer, Kiefer’s Washington reeks of cynicism and political expediency: ‘“It is devoutly wished on my part that these precedents may be fixed on principles,”’ I said and those dumb asses believed me. With their powdered wigs and piggy eyes: Believed me.” Likewise, Chester Arthur, finding himself president after James Garfield’s assassination in 1881, is imagined in “The Epitome of Dignity” as an NFL-quality trash-talker who really doesn’t seem too bothered by his predecessor’s sudden death: “Oh hell yes. Now I am the president, but they’re on me like flies on shit… Oh Abraham, you got nothing on me. Just take a look at Chester! Aren’t I so beautiful?”
Other presidents are mocked as hapless and unfit for the job. Herbert Hoover, surveying the wreckage caused by the Great Depression, is derided as a clueless “dummy” unfit to counter the effects of the Depression. James Buchanan is similarly helpless, unable to stem the tide that would lead to the Civil War. In “God Will Strike You Down,” all he can muster is a plaintive admission of “what a mess we’re in…A war it will come to bury lonely me.”
Yet there are some genuine moments of compassion that offset the cynicism that runs through many of the songs. As successor to William Henry Harrison after his death by pneumonia in 1841, John Tyler is viewed with pity in “Hindsight Falls on Deaf Ears.” Sung by Bill Callahan and featuring minimal violin and guitar, Tyler admits that “in my darkest thoughts I never really wanted any of this.” Several others beg for a different life as they look back on their time as president. Jefferson Pitcher’s Harry Truman wishes for a simpler life as a clothing salesman after the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945. In the mandolin song “Suits and Fine Trousers vs. Hiroshima,” Truman is a mess of conflicting emotions: “And where will they bury all of the bodies? I feel so sick inside. But every night I will pray that I have done the right thing. Oh God, forgive me. And ruin will rain down. Ruin will rain down on them…Will I rot in hell? Oh what was I thinking?” Lyndon Johnson confronts the legacy of his presidency – war in Vietnam, riots in Detroit, and the Great Society ultimately a failure – and alternately recalls his badass younger days (“1957. I was on top of the world. I’d corner them in the cloakroom and watch them shaking in their shoes”) and begs his wife to take him home to his ranch.
The presidents that receive complete praise are few and far between. Richard Nixon is held up as a paragon of virtue and morality, and as a man helpless to halt the corruption of those around him, in “2 Under Par Off the Coast of Africa” (just kidding – Nixon finds himself shamed and disgraced in San Clemente, imagining a round of golf with Napoleon). Perhaps not surprisingly, FDR and John F. Kennedy receive the most praise. Between some provocative swipes at today’s GOP and conservatives, Gerken describes FDR as motivated by “improving the world for people and earth. Now, we all know that government can be a force of good.” Kennedy is viewed as an honorable and visionary man (“the spirit and soul of all that is good fell for this man”) whose death altered the future of American politics (“I imagine two whole terms and then Bobby for two more. There would never have been a Nixon nor Ford…”).
For the most part, the music compliments the lyrics very well. Acoustic and electric guitars, saxophones, pianos, banjos, violins, and violas are used often, and combine to set the appropriate tone for each song. “It Was Foreshadowed Here: The Beginning of The End” uses a slow acoustic guitar accented with piano as Gerken dismisses the first Bush administration with a terse “history will be very cruel.” The melodies are also nice; the U.S. Grant song “Helicopters above Oakland” is perhaps the finest of the set.
There are some occasional flaws in the album’s execution. Sometimes the lyrics don’t quite fit into the space of the music and thus subvert the melody to get a point across; songs about Teddy Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Van Buren (“capitalism explored political liens and the inherent internal contradictions therein”) most noticeably suffer from this. Though most of the vocals are warm and upfront, occasional distorted or distant vocal arrangements detract from the album’s mostly-consistent style. The John Quincy Adams song “Death In the Speaker’s Room” is one such case.
The album’s packaging is also worth mentioning. A lengthy hardcover book includes each song’s lyrics as well as the writers and performers for each song. Even better, the book contains images of the presidents from 43 different artists; many of these compliment the themes of the various songs. Nicole Roberts’ artwork for Bush Junior consists of an outline of the state of Texas in the colors of the American flag, along with a crown, church, spouting oil, and rows of gravestones. Trystan Bates’ humorous drawing of Jimmy Carter shows the former president as an alien being beamed up to home planet, in keeping with the song’s lyrics (“Oh Jimmy boy. Soon your people will come to take you home. They will crash through the atmosphere tonight and we earth people will sadly wave goodbye”). For his piece on Herbert Hoover, Bart Woodstrup forgoes a portrait of the Depression-era president in favor of a bleak painting that consists of a barren landscape, a single brown shack, and rows and rows of faceless (and presumably unemployed) men beneath a giant, empty spoon.
As an artistic interpretation of both the highs and lows of the American presidency, as well as the nature of the presidency itself and the mythology of the men who held that office, Of Great and Mortal Men is a fascinating and thought-provoking concept album. Although the album should not be interpreted as a purely objective history – plenty of artistic licenses are taken, which could twist a few wigs (no pun intended) – it’s still an excellent examination of the presidency and, perhaps more, how presidents have shaped both America’s history and the lives of her citizens.