On his solo debut as the Nightwatchman, Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello dubbed himself a One Man Revolution, strapped on an acoustic guitar and stomped his way through an array of fist-pumping protest songs as if he were overcome by Woody Guthrie’s spirit.
For his third Nightwatchman album, Morello recruited a full band (the Freedom Fighter Orchestra) and expanded on his folk-troubadour sound. Heck, the guitarist even plugs his instrument back in for a handful of tracks, which, while miles removed from Dylan going electric, remains a welcome development for fans. See, as a singer, Morello has always been utilitarian at best, hammering out words like a contractor pounding away at nails. But as a guitarist? Well, just check the solo he uncorks midway through “It Begins Tonight,” a ferocious six-string display that sounds something like an army of marauders storming the castle gates—a fitting accompaniment to coup-baiting lines like “Let’s move tonight and take the throne.”
The hit-or-miss Worldwide Rebel Songs arrives quickly on the heels of the recent Union Town EP, a more traditional effort that could have served as the soundtrack to the wave of pro-union protests still dominating headlines in Madison, Wisconsin—or, based on its throwback sound, any pro-union movement throughout history. But while the targets on Union Town are clear (corporations, right wing news outlets, apathy), Worldwide Rebel Songs is a far more eclectic affair. Songs deal with everything from stop-lossed American soldiers stuck fighting an unjust war (“Stray Bullets”) to Mexican slums decimated by the drug trade (“The Dogs of Tijuana”).
Lyrically, Morello still finds himself prone to broad sloganeering, dropping lefty lines like he’s been holed away brainstorming bumper sticker copy for Ralph Nader: “History is not made by presidents or popes”; “Freedom’s train has left the station”; “Are you gonna stand around? Or are you gonna be free?” While it’s difficult to argue with the sentiments in his songs, there are definitely moments where the delivery is best described as clunky. Witness the title track, constructed around a sing-along chorus that sounds as though it’s being belted out by the cast of A Mighty Wind. Superior are the shake-the-rafters thump of the gospel-inflected “Speak and Make Lightning” and comparatively stoic “Facing Mount Kenya,” a slinky spiritual on which Morello puts the overwhelming challenges facing our democracy in more natural terms. “I am only one man,” he whispers, “Facing Mount Kenya.”
At its best, Morello’s solo output serves as a rallying cry. “I ain’t alone no more,” he howls atop the harmonica-fueled folk of “Black Spartacus Heart Attack Machine.” But too often on Rebel Songs, the frontman sounds unmoored, coming across less like a would-be prophet than one well-intentioned man adrift in the desert. —Andy Downing
Photo: Sean Ricigliano