William Elliott Whitmore: “Animals in the Dark”
In Rainbows notwithstanding, it generally takes a few months at the very least for a CD to be pressed and printed, for the cover art to be made and all the pre-release publicity to kick into gear, between the time an album is completed and the time it finally reaches an audience. And therein lies the problem with topical songwriting; penning a song about something that’s going on in the news would be like taping an episode of The Tonight Show or an evening news broadcast, then holding it for two months before airing it. Take, for example, Animals in the Dark, the ANTI- label debut for singer-songwriter William Elliott Whitmore, recorded at the height of Bush malaise, sent out to critics mere days after the election of Barack Obama, and finally released in stores as the financial crisis– and the clash between the new president and the Republicans in Congress– reaches a fever pitch. Depending on how you look at it, Whitmore is either blessed or cursed with a blaring conscience, a keen political awareness, and a need to say what’s on his mind without holding back, and, on this new album, he demonstrates both the limitations and the ultimate resiliance of his particular songwriting tradition.
And it is a tradition– though his lyrics sound like they’re ripped from the evening news (or at least, the evening news from last October), he isn’t so much interested in polemics as he is populism, finding his footing somewhere between the everyman folk of Woody Guthrie and the Dust Bowl existentialism of Nebraska-era Springsteen. He writes with humor and withering rage, yes, but also with a certain romanticism and an unflinching idealism, mirrored by the purity and timelessness of his music. These are folk songs through and through, generally arranged only for Whitmore’s acoustic strumming and maybe some hand percussion, and if the production is very spartan, his songs are full-bodied, his melodies pliable, and his singing– deeper and craggier than one would expect from someone of a mere 30 years– betrays a debt to Depression-era country-blues singers, and perhaps even a hint of gospel.
But, as always, it’s the songs that matter, and Whitmore begins his album with a doozy. “Mutiny” is a call-and-response barn-burner that drips with savagery and venom, with no instruments save for a ruthlessly martial snare drum and the hootin’ and hollerin’ of a group of background singers. It’s a declaration of war, filled with blasphemy and vulgarity and murderous fury– “well he don’t need no water/ let the motherfucker burn”— and though it was pretty obviously written about George Bush, Whitmore locates his rage in the blues tradition as much as in the topical writing, allowing the song’s roaring sentiment to transcend administrations and speak to the more general feeling of indignation at leadership that isn’t leading.
It’s the angry numbers– “Mutiny” and the frenzied strumming of “Old Devils,” another brutal indictment of sinister politicians– that capture Whitmore’s intensity and his gift for capturing feelings of frustration and helplessness and channeling them into something rousing, but some of the slower, less vengeful numbers display a broader emotional palette, and, arguably, a greater level of poetic finesse. “Mutiny” marches right into the stinging “Who Stole the Soul,” a finger-picked lament for the decline of beauty and soulfulness in our culture and our art. Its sadness and vulnerability are poignant, and it proves that the artist is more than just an angry young man or a hippie liberal; there’s a real method to his craft, and a craft to his art.
When he becomes too strident, the album doen’t work as well. The beauty of these songs is the way they unite people behind common feelings and a common purpose, the way they provide an outlet for frustration and anger– that’s why this kind of music has never been swept away by the passage of time. But a song like “Johnny Law,” a broad swipe at police officers and, seemingly, an invitation to anarchy, has all the piss with none of the purpose, coming across as cantankerous but not particularly meaningful or artful, particularly for those of us who have never been unjustly arrested. (And I’m guessing that’s quite a few.)
Still, that the album continues to resonate even in such different circumstances than the ones it was written under– no, Bush isn’t around anymore, but there’s still this matter of the economy, and it’s sure to be something else after that– is proof of how resiliant, how universal this kind of populist folk music remains. Whitmore has an uncommon talent, but even so, he makes for a relatable and thoroughly convincing everyman.