It has often been said that the role of the artist is intensified in times of political strife. Earlier this year, Steve Earle did his part to corroborate the theory with Jerusalem, an album which, among other things, had the Republican party up in arms over a song about John Walker, the American who joined the Taliban. Now, Tom Petty has joined the ranks of dissenters. The Florida rocker’s latest, The Last DJ, takes a stab at the corruption of the American dream, greed-driven corporate CEOs, the music business’ dismissal of talent in favor of selling sex, and problems with America’s youth that no one likes to talk about. All in all, it’s a brave album by an artist who has refused to be a corporate lackey since day one (“I Won’t Back Down” was Petty’s song-response to a compromise requested by his label, Warner Bros.). One stand-out song from the album is “Money Becomes King,” in which Petty croons the tale of a fading hippie musician who has tried to keep the faith but ultimately winds up exchanging his musical integrity for the money brought in by light beer commercials.
On “When a Kid Goes Bad,” Petty questions why we, the people, so rarely have asked “Why?” in the aftermath of school shootings (Petty’s suggestion: take a look at those two huge letters on either side of “U”—namely, “T” and “V”). And on “Joe,” Petty dons the voice of a major label record company CEO with scathing lines such as, “No, bring me a girl/They’re always the best/You put ’em on stage and have ’em undress/Some angel whore who can learn a guitar lick/Now that’s what I call music.”
The irony of a major label album taking a shot at corporate greed is that, while Petty disses that corporate CEO, he’s making him buckets of money at the same time. This, in turn, raises the question, “What will happen if and/or when a significant amount of profitable music is anti-establishment?” Will Petty and Steve Earle and the like really be the last DJs “who say what they want to say,” even if they generate money while doing so? Or, are profits the bottom line for labels, even if the gains come in such a “bite the hand that feeds you” fashion?
Musically, The Last DJ is not Petty’s finest. Many of the album’s choruses come off as half-hearted regurgitations of the anthems of his prime. Regardless, it’s an important record because it recognizes the feeling of the 76 percent of the country that didn’t cast a ballot for George W. Bush that “something’s got to give.” Now, in the tradition of Jerry Maguire, Petty joins Steve Earle in asking his listeners, “Who’s coming with me?”
If Petty has sounded the battle cry, Pearl Jam has answered, though not whole-heartedly, with its seventh studio release, Riot Act. A pleasantly muddy composition, the album’s been panned by several reviewers for sounding nothing like Ten: The Sequel.
Fortunately for the band’s career, Pearl Jam has continued to grow, both musically and lyrically, over the course of its last three, lesser-selling releases, instead of repackaging the same old sound like every other radio rock band whose lead singer practices sounding like Eddie Vedder in the shower each morning. Pearl Jam’s latest is an interesting portrait of inner struggle, especially evident on tracks co-penned by Eddie Vedder and guitarist Stone Gossard. On “Bush Leaguer,” the Jammers congeal into a pit bull on the pantleg of “the pit bull on the pantleg of opportunity,” (a title Bush once gave himself): “He’s not a leader, he’s a Texas leaguer…/Drilling for fear makes the job simple/Born on third, thinks he got a triple.” On “1/2 Full,” an alt-country rock tune that Pearl Jam wears comfortably, Vedder does make one concession to critics seeking another Ten with an echo of lyrics from that first album: “There ain’t gonna be no middle anymore/It’s been said before/The haves be having more/Yet still bored.” Despite these jabs and the album’s title, Riot Act is tenuous in its politics, closing with “All or None,” a melancholy ballad with defeatist lyrics describing the band’s hesitant return to this familiar scene: “It’s a hopeless situation/And I’m starting to believe/That this hopeless situation/Is what I’m trying to achieve.”
But tough times do bring out the best in many artists, and such is the case with Pearl Jam. The band experiments with new sounds; the industrial flavored “You Are” features a Duran Duran-esque sound (until, of course, Vedder’s signature baritone chimes in). “Thumbing My Way” is a tender acoustic ballad, simple enough to speak to the heart.
Riot Act is worth the inner turmoil, then. It’s just that with older rockers like Tom Petty soon getting too tired to fight, and with Pearl Jam releasing an album titled Riot Act with a song called “Bush Leaguer” on it, the little activist inside me that’s searching for anything but more fear-mongering on CNN was hoping for more of the anger release and challenge issued on Vs. Because if Pearl Jam isn’t prepared to go all the way in taking up the anthems of Earle and Petty, who are we to look to? Petty has laid out a road to follow, but Pearl Jam is still deciding which fork to take. In the meantime, the decision process itself makes for worthwhile songs on Riot Act.