Tom Morello is best known for his work as the guitarist in the hard rock bands Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave. But his history of political activism has also inspired him to record as the Nightwatchman, an acoustic-based folk singer who writes protest songs. The Fabled City is the second Nightwatchman album, and while it’s more stylistically diverse than his first record, 2007’s One Man Revolution, Morello fails to turn his impassioned messages into provocative music.
Channeling Dylan and Guthrie
Because his wizardry on the electric guitar is so well known, it might seem odd that when Morello finally decided to pursue a solo career he would abandon his greatest strength. But The Fabled City argues that Morello wants to push himself, adopting the acoustic-guitar-and-harmonica simplicity of the folk singers of the 1950s and ‘60s like Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. As with his predecessors, Morello believes that the best way to convey a message is by placing it front and center, letting the plainspoken singing dominate the musical arrangement.
Lacking the Vocal Firepower
But although the grit and starkness of The Fabled City are striking, Morello’s limitations as a performer and songwriter undermine his efforts. Most critically, Morello doesn’t have a great singing voice. Whether whispering during “Rise to Power” or speak-singing on “The King of Hell,” he comes across as strident and ranting rather than deservedly angry at the political corruption he sees around him. Honestly, he demonstrates a more powerful presence while soloing on the old Rage albums than he does by opening his mouth as the Nightwatchman.
Trying Too Hard
Beyond his limited singing skills, Morello is also hamstrung by his forced lyrics. Folk music with a political agenda can be tricky – the performer wants to get a point across without appearing preachy or smug – and Morello has real difficulties in this area. “The King of Hell” works through a tortured metaphor that draws a parallel between Satan and warmongers, while other tracks incorporate Biblical imagery as an attempt to give the songs a sense of weathered authenticity. Unfortunately, Morello just sounds like he’s trying too hard to earn the mantle of a serious-minded protest singer. No one would expect Morello to make an album full of jaunty pop songs, but The Fabled City has so many dreary tunes devoid of memorable musical moments that it would appear that he believes that serious music can’t be enjoyable at all. But didn’t Rage Against the Machine prove that isn’t always the case?
For Devoted Fans Only
Presumably, people who buy The Fabled City are either fans of Morello’s earlier work or those who agree with his liberal agenda. As someone who fits both of those categories, I respect The Fabled City, but it’s very hard to love or even like what he’s attempted here. There are those who will say that what Morello has done as the Nightwatchman is vital since our modern musical environment places little importance on socially-conscious lyrics or provocative subject matter. But if the songs don’t work first as music, what does it matter if the lyrics are trying to say something meaningful?
Best Tracks:“The Fabled City”
Release date – September 30, 2008