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Tom Morello’s second solo album as The Nightwatchman is, musically speaking anyway, a bit louder than last year’s One Man Revolution, although not in the same sense as his better known work with his big arena rock bands Rage Against The Machine and Audioslave.
At the same time, lyrically speaking anyway, The Fabled City has a quieter, more personal feel to it. Here, the songs are populated by characters who for the most part are just trying to eek out a day to day existence or are otherwise just doing whatever they can to survive.
On this album, Morello weaves their stories in the sort of instantly engaging way that owes far more to the everyman tradition of people like Guthrie, Dylan, and Springsteen than to the guitar hero sort of pedigree you’d normally associate with his work in Rage Against The Machine. In songs like “Gone Like the Rain,” we meet for example, folks who discover that “there’s a river in Texas, with a strong undertow, no one crosses it for freedom, no one pans for gold.”
We already knew that Tom Morello is a monster guitarist. But on The Fabled City, he tells smaller stories that resonate in a way that cuts straight to the bone. On this album, Morello proves to be as masterful a storyteller as he is a guitarist.
The Nightwatchman is of course Morello’s alter-ego that he uses as a vehicle for the darker visions of his more stripped down solo work. The songs on The Fabled City are not as overtly political as they were on its predecessor, as Morello has for the most part eschewed the more populist tone of his work with Rage, for the politics of the personal.
Although the musical palette has been expanded somewhat on The Fabled City to include electric full band arrangements, the tone is still one of a starker sounding base of folk and blues. There are also hints of funk (“Whatever It Takes”), gospel (“Saint Isabelle,” and “Lazurus On Down”), and even a hint of country twang (on “The King Of Hell” – who isn’t the devil by the way). The level of struggle and grit here is palpable, and Morello’s lower sounding vocal register suits the brooding tone of these songs perfectly.
The Fabled City opens with the title track, which sounds like the soundtrack to a spaghetti western played out on the streets of L.A.’s Sunset and Crescent, where “the streets are paved in gold, but an iron fence runs around it, and it’s iron gate is closed.” This Mexican sounding musical backdrop is further played out on “The Lights Are On In Spidertown,” where Morello offers up a fabulous solo on the nylon strings, as the backing vocals conjure visions of the Talking Heads gone mariachi.
On the most overtly political song here, it’s “Midnight In The City Of Destruction.”
On this song, Morello calls for no less than the head of Bush on a platter. "I pray that God himself will come and drown the president if the levees break again,” Morello sings in one line. In another, he puts himself within the walls of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, describing a “secret prison that keeps it’s secrets well.”
On “The Iron Wheel,” Morello is joined by Shooter Jennings to describe the treadmill of “the iron wheel that slowly spins around, it takes you from the cradle till’ your six feet underground, you’ll ride the wheel till your through, and those who spin the wheel, well, those fuckers ride it too.”
On “Lazurus On Down,” Morello is joined by System Of A Down’s Serj Tankian, although he is barely recognizable here.
Earlier this year Tom Morello joined Bruce Springsteen onstage in Los Angeles for an electrifying version of the latter’s “Ghost Of Tom Joad.” Taken within the context of the songs on The Fabled City, the collaboration seems a fitting one. Like Springsteen’s Woody Guthrie inspired songs on the Joad album, the characters on Morello’s The Fabled City for the most part are living out a sort of dust bowl existence with the hooves of the apocalypse’s fabled four horsemen sounding not that far off in the distance.
It is the sort of bleak lyrical landscape that is perfectly matched by the dark, folk and blues based arrangements of this amazing record – one which signals the arrival of Tom Morello as a songwriter every bit as great as we already know him as a guitarist.
The Nightwatchman’s The Fabled City arrives in record stores on September 30.
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