Release Date: June 23, 2015
There’s a phobia among a certain kind of music fan that protest songs don’t date well, particularly the more specific they get. F—k that. Conor Oberst certainly ain’t exempt — at the height of his visibility he debuted “When the President Talks to God” on Leno, a “puerile trainwreck of a song” one major outlet commented. But from Pussy Riot’s incredible “Putin Lights Up the Fires” to PJ Harvey’s woefully under-heard “Shaker Aamer,” being dated is the point. Crude, fact-filled and pissed-off, these songs aren’t supposed to be misapplied to any future event. They’re about what they’re about, from when they’re from, and they’ll last because you can no more erase their blip from history than Putin’s hooliganism or a Guantanamo survivor’s hunger strike. Maybe this upcoming Public Enemy album “influenced by Run the Jewels and Kendrick Lamar” (does that not sound like the Words With Friends board game?) will win them across-the-board respect for the first time since 1991. Maybe Flavor Flav will announce that this dick is in fact, free.
Protest songs are great for punk, whose great legacy is the lasting preservation of songs that were not built to last; if no one in 2025 knows what Desaparecidos’ new “Anonymous,” “Slacktivist” or “MariKKKopa” refer to, all the more reason to use their de rigueur Google Glasses to look them up. That is, here’s an argument for Oberst’s second punk album: it’s loud, it’s fast, it’s good. But it’s also filled with (oh no) specificities that your grandkids might not understand! What will you think about your tattoos when you’re old?
So move over Black Messiah, which only kept fans waiting for two more years than Payola. Desaparecidos’ long-awaited second album is several BPM more breakneck than 2002’s Read Music/Speak Spanish, and more politicized; it actually improves on the original in every way. Whereas the last album started with the punchy, Cars-like “Man and Wife (The Former),” still grounded in Oberst’s sour-relationship tradition even through the prism of economic analysis, “The Left Is Right” begins with the boys handcuffing themselves to an ATM in the middle of Wall Street and doesn’t let go. “You’ll do good business as an apologist,” they sing to an aspiring war criminal on the next track. “They pulled your teeth til you smiled and agreed.” And so forth.
As with most punk that threatens to dull its own tempos, Payola takes a few listens to break everything up properly in the ear. But give it time and secret highlight “Te Amo Camila Vallejo” emerges as one of the most anthemic songs on an album not lacking in them, with its rechargeable verses and densely harmonized chorus about the titular Chilean student activist. Damn right the closing “Anonymous” is a tribute to the “legion” population of 4Chan who’s actually done some good. Should it be a surprise that these toasts to the brave are two of the best tunes on a strong set? It’s good for punks to have heroes; keeps the nihilism away.
Between the withdrawn rape accusations and tepid response to last year’s Upside Down Mountain, it’s a relief that rather than sinking into self-imposed exile, Oberst restarted a passion project that doubles as a crowd-pleaser. This is partly thanks to guitarist Denver Dalley’s unsung effects rack, which mimics everything from new wave synth to jammed dial-up connection. But recruiting Cursive’s Tim Kasher (on a single that outs the founding fathers as slave rapists) and Laura Jane Grace (who gleefully joins a chorus skewering “a locker room of CFOs telling racist jokes”) for 14 good songs in 40 minutes, Oberst’s made his best album since 2008’s addictive Conor Oberst, and ended up with the white male rage of the year. Maybe that’s because they make no bones about where their privilege came from: “If there’s anything great left in this solid state / It was built on the backs of the poor.”