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If you grew up in the United States in the ’70s, one thing you saw on the tube over and over again was the old commercial for Radio Free Europe. It was black-and-white in every sense: A man in a leather jacket walks through the streets of a foreign city, then enters a studio where he dons headphones and speaks into the mike in some Eastern European tongue. The words are unintelligible until you hear, “Own Budawdway.” And then the song “On Broadway,” begins: Our music was the sound of the free to distant peoples who had no idea what freedom was like. They had bread lines and the Iron Curtain. We had neon lights and magic in the air.
But freedom is a kind of moral technology. Like the electric can opener, it’s not something you’re apt to forego once you have it. Like the automobile, it’s something whose limits you’ll test. And like the A-bomb, it’s something whose use entails a whopping amount of responsibility. Ultimately you can’t be free and easy with your freedom, a point the founding fathers well understood. They had shed their blood for it, and remembered what life was like under the boot-heel of the king. John Adams maintained that the Constitution, far from being an expression of our innate rights and freedoms, was suitable only for a people that was both religious and moral—by which he didn’t mean a people who used the Stars and Stripes to cover their pubic hair.
The Black Crowes lifted the cover of amorica from Hustler‘s July 1976 Bicentennial issue—a glistening crotch in an American flag bikini thong, with a clutch of pubes curling out over the top—and the photo says way more than its thousand words about how much freedom we Americans really have, and just what we’ve done with it. Separated by two centuries from the original, radical revolution, the idea has filtered down from public to pubic. Unlike the shivering souls of the east before the fall of the Wall, we don’t need a revolution to be free—and so are free to have our revolutions all the time. We have them in fashion and in sex, in music and in drugs; revolutions come ’round now as quickly as a spinning CD. “Revolution” as a signifier no longer means anything, in the same way that Old Glory—a symbol of a liberated nation used here to cover different country—has lost its purchase on our imaginations.
It’s this meaningless world that Chris Robinson and bandmates portray on amorica. And a mighty grim portrait it is, all the more so since the Crowes, by today’s standards, are relatively “happy.” They write melodies and seem to enjoy playing them. Their chord changes make sense. They have a funky bottom and a chunky organ and are pretty much as close as it gets nowadays to what used to be called “honest rock ‘n’ roll.” Many fans, myself included, think they may be the finest rock band to come along in years.
But they’ve come along in these years, these excessively free and amoral years—amorica puns on amoral and amore—and this record depicts the self-loathing that’s resulted from all the unchecked freedoms. “Good riddance I’m gone/Gone in a wasted way,” Robinson sings on the opener, “Gone,” and the yen for self-destruction keeps up until the closing tune, “Descending”: “Have mercy baby, I’m descending again.”
When you go down, of course, you go to hell, and the cumulative effect of these various images—if he goes down on his baby, he’ll find the American stars and stripes already there—is one of a graphic, sometimes shocking bleakness. Robinson has a strong, gravelly voice, and his shrieks and cries invest these somber lyrics with real force. “I hate myself,” he laments on “Cursed Diamond,” one of the album’s best cuts, “Doesn’t everybody hate themselves?”
Everybody in Amorica does, anyway, and those people are going to find this to be one hell of a good rock ‘n’ roll record. The Crowes, of course, are a heavy retro outfit, and the tunes echo unmistakably with bits of rockers past, as if to reinforce the idea that amorally amorous America is the product of chord changes as much as political ones. The cowbell and conga intro to “Gone” winks at the Rolling Stones, and “A Conspiracy”—the first single, now playing on a radio near you—recalls the wah-wah rock-funk of the Eric Burdon Band. The wonderful “Nonfiction” is a delicious slow blues jam, complete with gospellike background vocals and a tambourine in place of the drum kit, but there’s nothing upward-reaching about the message. “The clouds conspire above my head,” Robinson moans, “I overheard them say I wish he was dead.”
That’s self-hatred, and it keeps coming back throughout the album. The melodies are, without exception, pretty and poppy, but the joy is undercut by morose imagery—“I am a cobweb in the corner of the room,” from “p. 25 London”—and an ultimate refusal to save one’s soul: “It was just a few years ago,” the finale to “Descending” goes, “You’d hand me ups and a map right out of town/But I would let it slide like mercury/Silver and quick, poisonous and deadly/So deadly.” It’s not the lyric you’d expect over major chords and some fine gospel piano.
Conservatives have been arguing for some time that America’s amoral and nearly hopeless, of course, but it’s a jarring and unexpected message from a rock band, one that 20 years earlier might just as easily have turned out like the Allman Brothers.