The melodically contagious opener, “Walk in Circles,” and the power-pop attack of “Scared Stiff” illustrate the raw, frazzled state of Trump-era America. “I can’t ignore the omens,” he sings in the deceptively gentle “King of Catastrophe,” whose tense folk-rock sound balances the insistent “Walk in Circles” and the gritty “Unruly Mobs.” “The gift of wooden horses, you think it’s full of candy.” There’s precious little candy in these rootsy tracks.
“Something’s Gotta Give” leaps from a trippy ’60s-ish 6/8 ballad into a pounding chorus that busts the boundaries of musicality with a paroxysm of wrath. Here and elsewhere, Phillips’s slightly gravelly voice battles with the guitars and drums. But, simultaneously pleading and defiant, it’s all of a piece with the earthy arrangements.
The economic divide emerges in “Miss Betty,” a more personal story that becomes another, more subtle call to action: “There’s little time for mischief anymore.” And focused action will be needed, he implies, to avoid a return to savagery. Warns “Wilderness,” “You become the very thing you fear,” evoking a tinderbox of a world that appears more explicitly in “Another, Another, Then Boom.”
With all these gloomy lyrics, the songs sound so bracing that one can’t help but be reminded of the positivity inherent in the creative spirit. And sure enough, resistance and even revolution churn in the post-punk surge of the final two listed tracks. “You never hear them marching ’til they’re coming up the stairs,” warns the singer in “Great Acceleration.” But music can spur awareness and action even as it teases the ears.
The album itself doesn’t accelerate greatly, as most of its best songs are in its first half. But Widdershins gives voice to some of the most acute anxieties of our time. Well worth repeated listens as a whole, it comes out Feb. 23 and is available for pre-order now.