I’m gonna start this off with a prediction: Either this album will be some groundbreaking marquee release in rock n’ roll history, or it will be the most curious find in the bargain bin in short order. It is pure genius, or an unforgivable stroking of ego. Either way, Shooter Jennings, son of Waylon, is swinging for the fences with his new release, Black Ribbons, and he takes you on the most unusual and hard to understand musical experience you might ever go on.
I’m not even sure where to start trying to explain this thing. Actually I do. First let’s put to bed any notions that this album, or Shooter by proxy, has anything left to do with country music. Of course, I’ve been saying this since May 9th of 2009 and was the first to say it. And even when Shooter’s management was sending out press releases with the words: “Shooter has left his country roots behind,” some die hard country Shooter fans would not believe it, some even going as far as calling me an “asshole” for asserting such a thing.
But having listened cover to cover, there is no country here. Even the track “California via Tennessee” which had been held up as a new country song is undeniably industrial rock, full of electronic sounds and not even a hint of twang. This is not a criticism. If Shooter doesn’t want to play country anymore, neither do I.
Speaking of cover to cover, this is the next thing to get into. I could write a whole article on the packaging itself, no kidding. In short, this is the most elaborate and thought out CD package I have ever seen in my life, and it may never be topped.
It starts with a thin cardboard sleeve with the album cover on the front. On the back is the list of the 20 tracks, and under this where the normal copyright info would be it says: “This material is property of the United Nations Bureau of Investigation.” and goes on in similar cryptic jargon that hints of the sheer unusualness to come.
Inside of that is another cardboard cover that folds out to reveal a man in a sheep mask whose shooting lasers into the eyes of a little girl that read out the lyrics to “Row Your Boat.” ??? Confused yet? Well it gets even more weird from there, and as not to spoil all the fun, I won’t go into detail, but lets just say there more unfolding, and more unfolding, and more weirdness. Trying to get to the CD itself was a similar experience to the first time I ever opened one of those nesting Russian dolls, where smaller and smaller dolls just keep coming.
Finally you do come to the CD, as well as a Tarot-like playing card. Mine has a similar image to the image on the front cover, but maybe they are different in different CD’s. The CD itself boldly asserts: “Killing for peace is like fucking for chastity.” Yeah.
That phrase is actually uttered at one point on the album by none other than bestselling novelist Stephen King. That’s right, Stephen King can be found on this, let’s say “concept” album, as a sort of a narrator. The premise of the album is that King’s character “Will O The Wisp” is a pre-Apocalyptic radio DJ performing his last night on the air before the government shuts him down. The album has five segments of Stephen talking, while he intermixes songs from Hierophant, the name of Shooter’s new band.
Before I get into the music, let’s talk about the message. In the first song “Wake Up,” Shooter talks about how people have been dumbed down into robots by TV and the government has been filling our heads full of propaganda. He is a little harsh with the delivery, but in principle I can get behind the message he is peddling.
But as the album goes on, talk of government intrusion and media bias turns into a fictional post-apocalyptic scene as “Will O The Wisp” narrates: “No cars, no kids. Nothing but transport trucks and men with guns standing on street corners.” It makes you wonder if the themes of this album are made to drive home a point, or to paint a fictional picture. Is Shooter is really making accusations, asserting conspiracy theories and warning us of our doom, or just stringing together the threads of a narrative? To hear the message, it is serious and grave, but you can’t imagine someone taking themselves so seriously, and then making a video game to accompany this album. Yes, Black Ribbons The Game exists, making the whole mood and situation surrounding this album that much more unusual and hard to gauge. You can also check out the Shooter Jennings “De-Programmer” by clicking here.
At times this project feels outright adolescent, like a cry from a maladjusted young man. It is angry, but not necessarily in an inspiring or interesting way, just sort of an embarrassing way, like a teenager having a temper tantrum. It boldly asserts many ideas, like the “Killing for peace is like fucking for chastity,” but is that really a bulletproof saying? I don’t want to get into philosophy here, but what if you kill someone who is killing others? Yes, you can go back and forth and that is my point.
But maybe Shooter doesn’t even believe this saying, it is just part of the charade, or a hint for the scavenger hunt-like video game that accompanies this release?
I also didn’t buy Stephen King’s part. Honestly he wasn’t given much to work with, but his delivery was dry, his timing was bad, and you could not stop visualizing him in his Coke bottle glasses speaking in an antiseptic studio during the recording of this CD, as opposed to the dingy resistance radio outpost you’re supposed to imagine him broadcasting from.
As for the music itself, which is hard to focus on with everything else going on surrounding this album, I would say it is decent. The music does not always fit the theme progression of “Will O The Wisp’s” narration, but it is always very heavily electronic. I am a country music writer, so my skill at judging rock is limited, but I know my Radiohead, of which Shooter has asserted he is inspired by. But Radiohead is an originator of music, creating sounds and styles that are unique. Shooter and Hierophant is mostly straightforward rock music, run through electronic filters and then overdubbed with other electronic treatments. Songs like “Triskadektaphobia” and “When the Radio Goes Dead” are good songs and have their unique stamps, but there is nothing groundbreaking here.
Shooter has talent, and despite making a project that tends to distract and confuse you at many turns, at times this talent shines through. One of the standout songs for me was the title track. I thought it was very honest and deep, being mostly just Shooter and his guitar, but an over-driven electronic echo on his vocals distracted me from an otherwise superb song. Shooter can sing with a tremendous amount of soul when he wants to, and soul that is all his own, unique, impressive, and biting. Hearing “Black Ribbons” the song made me want to pick up Shooter’s old material, and made me wonder why he wants to put it down. This album plays less to his stregnths, and more to his desires.
And as many times as Shooter’s talent and character shined through, his anger and arrogance did too, like in the song “Fuck You (I’m Famous). I’m not saying that I couldn’t be convinced that this song is complete sarcasm, but if it is, Shooter sure didn’t do a very good job conveying that. In the song he tells critics (present company likely included), schoolyard bullies, label executives, women that wouldn’t screw him, ex-girlfriends, just about anybody, to in no uncertain terms, fuck off . . . because he’s famous. The songs of concept albums are usually not as strong as the sum of their parts, but in my opinion, this track could have been left on the cutting house floor, along with a few other songs and some of the blatant electronic overproduction that felt very 80’s and unimaginative.
In interviews and even previous Shooter songs, it is apparent that Shooter lets people who in any way don’t agree with him or his music get in his kitchen. Instead of putting his head down with hard work or figuring out how to work with the cards he’s been dealt, he seems to have a jealous-like rage against his “enemies” that gets the better of him. Of course the music industry is a mess, but are you going to bitch about it, or try to do something about it? I guess in this album, Shooter tries to do both.
Whether this album is a masterpiece, a flop, a good album with bad moments, or a bad album with some good, this is Shooter’s opus. We all have that one thing we want to get out before we die, and this is Shooter’s. Without question he has sunk his heart and soul into the project, and that in itself deserves high praise. He published it through what is kind of a vanity press for music, Rocket Science, and probably used at least some of his own money, or Waylon’s money, to make it all happen.
In closing I’m not sure what to say about this album. I’ll leave it at that, and add that it is usually the future which is best at judging a project like this.
Some notes from the album: Jessi Coulter and Jenni Jennings sing backup vocals on “Black Ribbons.” “When the Radio Goes Dead” was solely written by Ted Russel Kamp. It was produced by Dave Cobb.
Shooter Jennings and his new album will also be the first topic on the new Real Country Roundtable to be released 2-24-10.