I've been wondering for months if I would actually pen a review for Nick Moss' eighth album, Privileged, because I wasn't sure if writing liner notes for the album would somehow disqualify me as an honest reviewer of the record. I went back and forth with the ethical considerations. I talked myself in and out of writing this review repeatedly and I'll tell you I had some interesting conversations in my head.
What is a reviewer or critic? What is their job? What does objectivity mean in this business and how valuable is it? We could spend days considering those questions, but wouldn't we all rather talk about Privileged?
If I were to sum-up all those questions and answer them in one word, it would be honesty. I wasn't paid to say anything about the record, I volunteered and it's not like this is my first dance at the Nick Moss musical rodeo. I've been writing about his music for more than three years now. I own all his records. I've reviewed Live at Chan's and Live at Chan's 2 as well as Play it 'Til Tomorrow. I've seen he and the Flip Tops in concert. I've interviewed him. I'm about as neutral on Nick Moss as I am Bruce Springsteen, Radiohead, Buddy Guy, are any dozen other artists in my CD collection and on my iPod. There are two kinds of music – good and bad – and I only concern myself with the good. I don't spend a lot of time listening to music I don't like and even less writing about it. Life is finite; my life's playlist is, too.
I didn't say anything in those liner notes I didn't believe with my ears and heart. I didn't say anything in them I don't feel with my ears and heart four months later. I also didn't say everything I have to say about Privileged. The liner notes focus largely on Moss' pursuit of a musical direction beyond the Chicago blues sound of his past records and yes, to assure listeners this pursuit is successful. That change in direction is something I'll reference in the words that follow but I want to drill deeper. I want to express what it is about this record that has set me ablaze. Musical direction alone doesn't do that. Welcome to the fire.
Privileged opens with the baptism of fire that is "Born Leader." It's an ideal choice to open the album as it establishes a sonic and thematic tone that will resurface. It is a forceful opening salvo that hits like a clenched fist. Everything about it is ferocious and that's not an accident. Moss is serving notice, lyrically and musically. "Born Leader" is a statement of purpose.
He isn't changing his sound so much as he is expanding it. The Chicago blues sound at the core of his career even before forming The Flip Tops can still be felt but the confines of that idiom are quickly cast aside. The searing squall and grit of Moss's lead guitar feel familiar but it's now surrounded by a sleek, slinky rhythm and dirty, funky clavinet and organ fermenting just below the surface. "Born Leader" plays like a cagey middleweight fighter, quick on its feet but with devastating knockout power.
No names are mentioned nor party affiliations declared but he's clearly had it with the politics of the empty suit willing to say anything to get ahead. It's a message both timely and timeless. The sad truth is songs of war and crooked politicians never really go out of style. If history has taught us anything it is that there will always be another. So what's an artist to do? What's a man to do? You speak out and ring the bell of discontent. You remind the "Born Leader" they govern only with the consent of the governed and hold their feet to the fire by unmasking them in a torrid inferno of guitar and contempt.
This theme is repeated in another Moss original, "Privileged at Birth," and in his cover of Cream's "Politician." "Privileged at Birth" stretches out past seven minutes and is built with a more downhome sound compared to the brief, blistering display of power that is "Born Leader." John Kattke offers up a classic organ break to segue to Moss' extended, stylish solo.
Moss' version of "Politician" doesn't stray far from the basic structure of the original but there are distinct differences. Eric Clapton layers his guitars and the timing and rhythmic structure are a bit off-kilter, playing slightly towards the more complex side of the band's personality and dabbling just a bit with psychedelia. Moss' take is all intensity and attitude, causing the original to feel restrained by comparison. It's not a put-down but rather a recognition of the obvious fact Moss has approached the song differently than Cream. Moss' lead guitar is bigger and his vocal more forceful. There's a sinister swagger in the way the band attacks; their confidence and commitment are audible in every note. There is evangelistic fervor and furor in what these guys are playing and singing. The crunch and sting in the guitars are a wake-up call. These aren't empty words about quaint times or clever wordplay aimed at camouflaging intent. "Politician" combines with "Born Leader" and "Privileged At Birth" to form the core of the album, a musical State of The Union address.
"Tear 'Em Down" fits nicely alongside that core without speaking specifically to politics or current events. "Team 'Em Down" is a more philosophical meditation on the human bloodsport of building people up with the seeming express purpose of later tearing them down. Moss may not be playing pure, traditional Chicago blues this time out but borrowing from my wife's favorite quote from Tolkien, not all those who wander are lost. "Tear 'Em Down" clocks in at nearly eight minutes and Moss knows precisely what to do with each and every one of them. Fans who have supported the band because of his lead prowess will find plenty to like here and on "Your Love's A Lie." On the latter Moss returns to the subject of love gone wrong, a topic common throughout his blues work. The playing also changes. The fantastic solos on "Your Love's A Lie" are deeper and more personal. The album closes with the mandatory Nick Moss instrumental "Balognious Funk." As the title implies, Bob Carter drops a funky beat while Gerry Hundt and Stumpy Hutchkins create a colorful rhythmic background for Moss' searching leads to explore.
Priviledged is a towering achievement powered by the dynamics of searching and exploring, sprawling and focused, soulful and intense. It's a record that satisfies while tempting us with what might come next. Artists spend a lifetime just trying to climb that mountain. Very few ever chop it down with the edge of their hand. Moss has done both and only now sounds like he's entering his artistic prime.