Tom Morello / The Nightwatchman

The Fabled City

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Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello returns to the singer/songwriter alter ego he calls the Nightwatchman for 2008's The Fabled City. It needs to be said from the jump that this album stands in radical contrast to the skeletal One Man Revolution issued in 2007. Morello and producer Brendan O'Brien (who has been working with Bruce Springsteen since The Rising) decided on something more ornate than just guitar and voice, because these songs warrant it. Morello is much more a storyteller here: he offers tales of ordinary people trying to make it through another day in America. No heady platitudes, no sloganeering in the refrains, just small narratives that break outside the bounds of song and enter the world. As such Morello has succeeded in growing as a multi-dimensional songwriter and as a singer. These songs, though directly narrated, are as political as on his preceding album, but in a different way: these stories are the narratives of people we know, and often, have been. His America is the one that exists on city streets and in quiet suburbs, in malls and on country roads. The relationship between Morello and O'Brien is mutually empathic, nearly symbiotic. O'Brien resists his grander schemes in favor of organic approaches: some songs have small drum kits, others have a cello or B-3, and some have pedal steel guitars. The tempos and characters shift and change, as do O'Brien's textures. The title track with its big acoustic guitars, drum kit, and bassline ushers the album in with urgency: "Me and Javi /Shouted slogans in Spanish/Like it was our world to win/Then they moved the plant down to Ojeda/Time to bite your tongue again." Later, "an angel sad and old" who lives in an alley behind a market sings for a dollar. Morello's acoustic and the bass get fuzzed up for "Whatever It Takes," along with an urgent rhythmic pulse offering a first person narrative about a soldier who struggles as a proxy and an ally against despair, defeat, and disappearance. On "Lazarus on Down" a nylon-string guitar and a cello usher in the story of the raised biblical character abandoned and alone in Bethany; it features backing vocals by Serj Tankian. "Saint Isabelle" makes an appearance on the song named for her. Fueled by a harmonica, massive acoustic guitars, and a fast tempo, it feels more the like the Pogues doing a reel -- especially with the shouting chorus. She is a fragile and weary saint the narrator intercedes for; he prays for her as she does for his characters. "The Iron Wheel" finds Shooter Jennings lending his vocal to Morello's in a warning not to allow yourself to be crushed by life's challenges or submit blindly to authorities who are slaves to the same process. This is the first political album of 2008 where the people have a voice because the Nightwatchman keeps no critical or journalistic distance. Instead, with infectious melodies and inviting narratives, he invites us to join in, to acknowledge we are not separate from him, his characters, or their stories. With The Fabled City, Morello's growth as a topical songwriter is enormous; he's brought the singer/songwriter into a cultural discussion, a dialogue, where we can dialogue not only about characters (who are treated with dignity as speaking subjects, not merely as objects to hang a tune on) and their struggles, but also with popular music again, as a ready tool for awareness of the world around us.

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