“Black Ribbons” is the latest album from Shooter Jennings and his new band Hierophant. It is a richly constructed musical exposition about a fictional, yet not wholly impossible, future America, which has fallen under the rule of fascist oppression. With censorship as the order of the day, it is a dystopian view of the world that we could be headed towards – a world where they have lost the idea of who they are; where they have lost the ability to tell fact from fiction – or speech from propaganda. It is a gray world, with little hope of getting brighter, and it’s brought brilliantly to life by Hierophant.
It would be very easy to dismiss this album as another left-wing musical diatribe against the establishment. To do that would be to miss the point. It’s a far more nuanced and layered look at the price we, as a society, pay when we surrender freedom and liberty in the name of political correctness and “safety”. It takes a hard look at the political class and how they strive to divide us. How they manufacture crisis after crisis – all with the purpose of setting themselves up as the only ones who have the solutions. It is a stunningly conceived piece of work that serves both to reflect the listener’s own biases back at him, as well as to challenge him to really check his assumptions about the world we live in.
Before I delve too much in to the story (this is a high concept album after all – in many ways, this is more of a book review than a music review) let’s talk about the music. It is phenomenal. You can draw a straight line of influence from Pink Floyd with very little effort, but there are also the tendrils of industrial music, dance rhythms, electronica; as well as a strong undercurrent of the new country sound that first brought Shooter to fame. At times I could hear echoes of Nine Inch Nails, The Steve Miller Band, The Beastie Boys, Waylon Jennings, and Lynyrd Skynyrd – just to name a few. It’s an amalgamation of styles and influences that is hard to describe, but so ultimately satisfying that I can only hope there is more to come in the future.
I’ll dive in to each song in detail in a later post, but the overall feel of “Black Ribbons” defies an easy assignment of genre. The voice work by Stephen King is top notch as well. He perfectly captures the cadence and delivery of the late night AM talk show host. His interludes help guide the listener through the world of Hierophant, offering clues to what state the world is in, and where it is headed. It’s the glue in the middle of the album that takes this from being a great collection of songs, to being a stellar concept album.
The very first song on the album, “Wake Up”, lays the groundwork for the entire journey that is “Black Ribbons”:
And they’ll try to turn me against you,
So divided, we’ll turn to them
Because anything strong cannot be conquered from without
Before first being conquered from within…wake up!
This is the cornerstone for understanding the world of Hierophant. Through crisis and fear, the political establishment has been able to frighten people into surrendering their liberty and freedom. It is potential future that has frightening echoes of the world that we live in today. In fact, one could make the case that this theme is an indictment of the identity politics of the modern progressive movement.
So, who are the bad guys in the world of “Black Ribbons” – is it the far Left or the far Right? It’s hard to say for sure. There are definitely more progressive hints in the radio broadcasts by Will-O-The-Wisp. At the same time, there are plenty of conservative and libertarian threads in the songs themselves. It is possible for listeners of any political stripe to find sanctuary in this album – that is one of its main strengths. As a piece of art it allows you, the listener, to contribute to the ultimate value of the work, based on what you bring to the experience. For me, I tend to view “Black Ribbons” through a more conservative lens. Still though, people forget that politics is not a straight-line continuum – it’s a circle. If you go far enough to the Left or far enough to the Right, you’ll end up in the same place – fascism. That’s the real danger being warned against on this album.
I think it’s also instructive to look at little at the origin of the band’s name – Hierophant. “The Hierophant” is one of the trump cards in the major arcana of a deck of Tarot cards. You can find a thousand representations of the card, and just as many meanings floating around. More often than not, “The Hierophant” is represented by a pope like figure – a figure of authority and establishment. The word itself comes from ancient Greek – ta hiera – “the holy”, and phainem –“to show”; it is quite literally “the one who teaches the holy things”. So, why is that the name they chose for the band? You would have to ask them if you want to know the real answer. For me, though, one definition of “The Hierophant” spoke to me more than the rest:
When things are going very wrong in the world, the Hierophant is the one who wades in, quiets the panic, and offers good, practical advice. He symbolizes a connection to the divine, which answers with a very human voice, never oblique or mysterious. You know how to solve your problem, this card says; it is not easy, not a quick fix, but it is do-able. The solution is there, you’ve only to bring it down to Earth.
Through my more conservative interpretation of the album, this puts the music of the album squarely in the court of being the voice of reason. In a world were you have lost the center, where fascism is the order of the day, “The Hierophant” is the one who reminds you that all of the answers are there inside of you. Your basic human yearnings to be free, to love, and to be happy are the only tools you need to overthrow oppression. That is the voice the fascists don’t want you to hear – that is the voice of Hierophant.
You should go out and buy a copy of “Black Ribbons”. It’s an incredible musical work in and of itself – but there is also much, much more. Shooter has created a companion game for the album on his website – (www.shooterjennings.com). It is an addictive and textured game that rewards the careful listening of the album. There are also clues on Shooter’s Facebook page, Shooter’s Myspace page; there is even a Twitter feed for Will-O-The-Wisp. Taken all together, this is an artistic creation far beyond just a great album. It is an Experience.
For the past month, I have been immersed in “Black Ribbons” – and I plan to spend many more months with it in the future. This album has consumed me in a way that I haven’t been consumed by music since I was in high school. I have to say that it is one of the best albums I have heard in the past 20 years. I have listened to it, I have studied it, I have breathed it – and every time I think that I have it figured out, I discover that there is yet another layer waiting for me – one more level of meaning and understanding. And while I’ve thoroughly enjoyed peeling back the pages of this work, one by one – I’m smart enough to know that I still haven’t plumbed the full depth of the artistry here. I’m having a blast – but it would still be nice to be able to sit down with Shooter over a drink sometime and have him explain it all to me…
Until then, I’m going to keep listening. I’m going to keep thinking. I’m going to keep talking about the record. I’m going to keep being engaged in the process. As they say in “Wake Up”:
Life is a movie,
We are all actors,
Don’t let them edit you out.
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