Protest singers must feel they’re on a hiding to nothing these days. Trying to write a song that engages
with wider problems no longer rouses much of a response in listeners, not unless it provides generic
rebellion for angsty teenagers. In spite of the waning interest, critics still hanker for that vibe of
decades gone, back when protest songs by Dylan and Baez and the punks tapped into something
communal and undeniable. A-change was a-comin’, that change was surely blowin’ in the wind and
yes, royalty is indeed a fascist regime, quite right.
When today’s musicians do set out to produce songs that chime with the politicisation of a generation;
elder statesmen like Springsteen, Steve Earle or Billy Bragg, they’re criticized for a lack of subtlety on inequality and injustice, with the
lyrics disparaged as ‘on the nose’. The criticism comes for uttering sentiments that should be self-evident to anyone who turns on the
TV or picks up a paper; bankers are bad, war is futile, politicians lie – we know all this, why point it out again? They can’t win.
No wonder young songwriters, folk singers and Ed ‘The Ginger Adonis’ Sheeran prefer to address these topics obliquely if they mention
them at all. It’s much less risky to write ditties with words that are basically gibberish or focus on emotional matters, internal feelings
and personal strife. But there is one young performer who, in the 21st century, has risked taking on the big issues. For
fifteen years now he has led a growing audience down unusual musical paths, gaining the opprobrium of reviewers who
is quite an achievement when you consider the amount of competition…)
Starting his musical career in the mid-teens, Conor Oberst (right) has recorded mainly
folky, word-stuffed songs under the Bright Eyes monicker, a series of albums that started
out expressing personal anxieties before moving on to the wider world. They always come
with a distinctive musical vision, one that features quavery vocals, strummed guitars and
increasingly expansive arrangements, all the way up to last year’s decent ‘The Peoples’ Key’.
But in 2002 Oberst released the first, and so far only, record by an extremely different side project. Literally translated as ‘the
disappeared ones’, Oberst and his cohorts took their name from the Spanish and Portuguese leftists arrested and ‘vanished’
without trace by US-backed military governments in South America. Their sound is rudimentary but compelling, with crescendos
of guitars and distortion-heavy keyboards, Oberst warbling or yelling or howling what one reviewer called “emotional breakdown
vocal theatrics” over a noisy butinvigorating mess.
This distinct Desaparecidos sound combines with a lyrical thread to put the band in the lineage of punk, but preoccupied
with more recent concerns. At the time Oberst was looking out from his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska, seeing strip malls
and identikit housing developments, watching twentysomething boys and girls adopt their parents’ values. Everyone there
was settling into local life with the inevitable careers, mortgages and acquisitiveness that follows, prioritising financial
stability all the time.
‘Read Music / Speak Spanish’ starts with a vehement attack on materialism in the form of ‘What’s New For Fall’. Here
Oberst pulls down the meaningless edifice of fashion, its focus on appearance and ephemerality, a value system that
says potential partners have to dress a certain way to be romantically viable. Yet such obsessions are gone in an instant,
and whatever you wear now: “six months later, you won’t be caught dead in it.”
The music starts as it means to go on, enraged and threatening to clatter into incoherence, yet forever staying on the right
side of accessible and primitively melodic. Denver Dalley’s coruscating guitar lines as well as the pummelling of Matt Baum’s
drums are vital in propelling these hurtling earworms, along with Oberst’s unhinged vocals.
That initial track fades into young people talking, as the songs often do, providing a spoken motif for skewed generational
values. We overhear a conversation between American girls as they discuss what car a guy must own in order to be
dateable, with one voice-altered teen putting her spin on the level of supportiveness she's after (“He would need to support
me, financially”… “I like a man, that has money.”) before seguing into the next musical assault.
Second track ‘Man and Wife, the Former (Financial Planning)’, unwieldy title aside, is simply as good as noise-pop gets. A crackling
tune, with Oberst’s pained holler a perfect fit for the subject matter as he conveys the desperate meaninglessness of keeping up with
endless payment plans to, “enrol in that middle class” and buy a bunch of stuff: “Cause I sold some shit, I’m saving up. We can get
that house next to the park… with the extra hours I put in, we can pay for everything.”
What once represented the American dream; marriage and stability, hard work and social attainment, here descends into nightmare.
Over unravelling guitars, a young husband can barely cope with the grind of breadwinning (“I can’t concentrate when I’m at work. I just
think and think until my head hurts.”). He is overwhelmed by anxiety and debt, responsible too early, having to remind his wife: “If
you’re feeling trapped or too attached, remember we wanted that… And if you have to lie for everyone, well I would cover up for
you… Because we’re growing older, growing up. Just like our parents before us.”
So it goes, through environmental despoliation and the hollered crashing of ‘Manana’ (“We will cover the earth, like air and water”) on into ‘Great Omaha’s conspicuous consumption (“And it’s ALL U CAN EAT, and they will never get enough”). All this time the terror of a conventional future hangs over Oberst’s protagonists like a storm cloud, even as the music he conducts roars on.
By the time we get to ‘Mall of America’ Desaparecidos are bringing the language of genocide to the consumerist Midwest
(“Send the National Guard to… dress dead bodies in tight designer jeans”) while the ironically titled ‘The Happiest Place On
Earth’ dials the volume and theatrics down a notch while keeping desperation levels high, the singer intoning: “I got a letter
from the army so I think that I’ll enlist. I’m not brave or proud of nothing, I just want to kill something”. Yet soon he is
regretting that even this promised violence is mediated by the modern world: “Too bad that nowadays, you just point and click.
From junk food to hankering for swimming pools, the rest of the LP wallows in the horror of growing up and getting stale in an
identikit nowheresville. Oberst sees through the belief that a safe life in suburbia is desirable, highlighting the American
ignorance of foreign conflict or globalisation while moving inescapably towards TV-watching and shopping, the life that is
expected to stand in for real experience and emotion.
And his distinctly tremulous, occasionally slurred voice, doesn’t just skewer the American dream. Oberst sees the
hypocrisy of his peers in final track ‘Hole In One’ where: “adolescence made her an activist… she always wants to
know where the money goes, but will shell it out for filling up her nose.”
That Pitchfork reviewer who sneered at Oberst for having a copy of ‘No Logo’ to hand when writing ‘Read Music / Speak
Spanish’ should have asked who else was saying such things in 2002; using rock music to tell frustrated teenagers and
the disenfranchised youth they weren’t alone. Consumerism is empty, Capitalism unsustainable and massacres aren’t far
from the affluent West in a one-nation world. Meanwhile a cure can’t be found in Grande Lattes from Starbucks or a
second mortgage. This needs to be said, and here it’s done in such an uplifting, tuneful way, the slogans become
Of course, if you aren’t one to appreciate the political in music, this album can be enjoyed as a powerful, unpolished
slab of contemporary power-rock. A blast of tunes and fury that, at thirty-five minutes, is more succinct than those
often meandering or overwrought Bright Eyes releases from the ever-prolific Oberst.
Desaparecidos took their intentionally raw sound out on the road, touring with the pop-punk-emo-garage-whatever likes of
Jimmy Eat World and The Promise Ring throughout 2002, but Oberst was soon forced to end his side project and concentrate
on other groups instead (Bright Eyes, Monsters of Folk, recording under his own name). That looked like the end, until the
band reformed for a one-off ‘Concert for Equality’ in July 2010, a date that led to the announcement of a brief American tour
this summer wherein they will perform new material for the first time in nearly a decade...
So what do Desparecidos do next? Will Oberst have any more anger to express, or does ‘Read Music / Speak Spanish’
encapsulate everything he has to say? We already have one collection of songs speaking to the alienated everywhere,
wrapped in an inlay that apes a real estate catalogue out of Omaha, reflecting the belief this place could be any town. Anywhere nothing is authentic, save for the fearless fury of those songs one band chose to put out.
‘Read Music / Speak Spanish’ is available secondhand and digitally online. Unfortunately, because of rarity value, obtaining it won’t necessarily come cheap.