When I heard that there was going to be a new record by Connor Oberst’s agitprop rock band, Desaparecidos, I didn’t really bother having any particular feeling about it except that I was looking forward to hearing how it would sound. I mean…it’s been 13 since their first and only other LP was released and their catalog was a paltry 12 tracks between 2001-2003 with silence ever since. Now, I was a huge Bright Eyes fan (,,,blahblahblah…) and have to admit that I have not cared what Connor Oberst has been up to since I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning. However, part of why I loved Mr. Oberst so much at the beginning of this millennium is because of a staunchly anti-capitalist/consumerist-America album that he made with a band he set up for himself for the express purpose of punking-out when he felt his most enraged at the USofA. That band was called Desaparecidos. So, when I heard that title of the new Desaparecidos LP was Payola I felt some comfort that – at the very least – he would be approaching this album with the same rip-off-the-veil forthrightness that I loved so much about Read Music/Speak Spanish. I don’t even really know how to talk about how important this album is in my life. I’ll put it this way: I was 18, fresh out of high school, working at a family-owned Christian bookstore (convenience: it was literally across the street from my parent’s house), but most importantly I had been engaging with a lot of things that were contributing to an increasingly critical view of “the American Dream” that I was born into…then out of nowhere, one of my favorite singer/songwriters put out an album that “spoke my language”. To my adolescent mind, the way that I was “different” from my suburban cohort had finally been validated and explained. It was money. My peers, my family, everyone around me was really interested in money, fixated on it really, and I just couldn’t even care less about it. I wanted enough to do what I wanted to do…drink some coffee, smoke some cigarettes, eat shitty food late at night and go to shows listening to CDs. I knew it wasn’t the “real world”, but that whole idea was predicated on money and striving and the whole idea that the suburbs were the promised land , wasn’t it?
Everyday every interaction with everyone that I was surrounded by in the suburbs made me feel very, very,very alone. The kind of alone that you feel when you keep a secret from everyone. Read Music/Speak Spanish made me aware that I wasn’t alone. Even if none of my friends were interested in reading Howard Zinn or why we should reconsider going to college; even if no one at my church seemed to be willing to admit that our church was obsessed with money, just as obsessed as any rich “non-believer” was, that we seemed to be missing a lot of the point of what Jesus supposedly said about money; even if I wouldn’t find another likeminded individual in Greece, NY, at least one of my “heroes” was on the same page as me. Not only the same page, we seemed to be reading the same words at the exact same time (though this thought unfortunately didn’t make me any less lonely in my interactions with “real people” in the real world”).
I’m now 31 with once divorce under my belt, a lot less friends since I left The Church and scraping by right around the “poverty line”. My 20s: making friends and subsequently losing them to capitalism’s strivings, love/want/desire/need of money, the dream that tells them that America is the whole wide world/is the best country in the world/is the “best that there is”. I do not miss most of these people. They are going after what they want and I hope they find what they are looking for. The sad thing is that i never went after that way of life because it was pretty clear to me that money doesn’t buy happiness and I decided to structure my life around that idea instead of just saying it whenever it sounded like I was getting to caught up in it.
But I’ll tell you what: RM/SS is still there for me. It still exposes the dirty machine of the USA by delving into the the psyches of the characters that populate the songs (“I can’t concentrate when I’m at work/I just think and think ’til my head hurts/ of the payment plans I’m making/ I just wanted to provide for you”).The album was Gospel Truth for me when it came out and after 8 years of GWB and Vietnam II in the Middle East, after the disillusionment of realizing that even A Black President Who Promises Hope and Change Can’t Really Get Anything Significant Done in Two Terms, now that we know who the 99% are and just how disgusting income distribution in America is…if you’.
Now I get it: People don’t like to listen to songs about the ills of society, especially if it’s about money and jobs and houses and all the tedious everyday stuff that we all deal with….but I ask: why don’t they? it reminds me of when a kid does that “NAH-NAH-NAH-NAH” thing, fingers-in-ears because they don’t want to hear what is being talked about.
i’ll say it again: money. People don’t like to talk about money. We all know this. How much do you make a year? Do you think it’s your prerogative to talk about it or not? I’m only asking.
Much like READ MUSIC/SPEAK SPANISH, the lyrical content is abrasively political, (the opening track – and lead single – is called “The Left is Right” for crying out loud). To Anthony Fantano and every other critic who has never spent the 2 minutes that it takes to conceptualize a better world than the one we live in, drop the whole “the lyrics don’t work thing”. The lyrics don’t work for you because you don’t care about poor people/immigrants/wage slaves/et. al. as much as you think you do. How do I know this? Because you are good Americans, making a living doing what you love because you love living in the country that allows you to make a living off of doing what you love (you see how the cycle works?)
I’ve only listened to Payola about six times so I am still letting it settle in.
It’s not hitting me the same way that RM/SS still does, but this is a very different record. Oberst is thirteen years older, undeniably an adult, and a successful one, at that (and it could be that he is now much more financially secure than he was in 2002). And this is why I had no expectations when i heard that a second LP was coming from Desaparecidos…it is far too easy to speculate on what makes an artist who once has “it” “lose it”, but there is only one IT to Payola and Oberst has it: his intention to be one of the Many-many, one of the 99%, to connect through and in and with his songs those people and causes that he believes in, those few bright spots in the cultural/intellectual/spiritual void that is These United States.
I realize that many people who liked indie/underground/rock-with-guitars in 2003 pretty much gave it up for whatever people listen to these days, but Payola is out there and it’s pretty damn good. Especially if you take issue with the world as it is but haven’t figured out how to put your finger on what it is that bothers you, or if you lack the language or the confidence to say it yourself. Whatever heavy-handedness Connor Oberst will be accused of is irrelevant for three important reasons: 1) having built his name on being earnest, this level this-is-how-Im-feeling is nothing new for him; 2) because the world is full of the slacktivists (“we’re trending toward a cause”) and most of them don’t even have anything to say about the many things they repost/comment on; and, most importantly, 3) Oberst has always been aware that he is a prophet of sorts and that the most people will not appreciate, understand, or even listen to his music so a critique of heavy-handedness is not only lazy, but misguided. Would they have had Oberst become Enlightened on their behalf?
If the Audience does their job of meeting the Creator “half-way” in engaging with the Work, I’m sure that they will find something they agree with or relate to in Payola. They might be challenged, a bit affronted, or they might miss the “high context” references, which won’t slip by anyone who has actually paid attention to the news (your facebook feed) the past couple of years. If it’s “too political” for someone, I would venture to guess that they have a bit too much invested in The Ride.
It’s possible that i’m only defending Oberst because there are so few who are interested in literally “speaking out” in their work against the problems of our society, but as a fellow-creator I will be proud of anyone who is bold enough to say the things that no one else wants to. I’m just a dude in Philadelphia who loves to write, but I’m on your side, Connor…your side, and everyone’s.
Oh, yeah…even the tastemakers at Pitchfork green lit a decent review. (RM/SS got a 4.6, for the sake of comparison.)
And the video for the first single makes me think: “A People’s History of the United States for the meme set/millennials/anyone who believes the world only began when they got front-shat out into it”.