It might sound a little ridiculous, but the truth is that some musicians need to have something which genuinely pisses them off before them – something they find truly abhorrent – in order to produce their best work. Take Ed Hamell, for example: Hamell has been a politically-minded songwriter since he first appeared in 1996 but his best music has always appeared when either societal problems had reached a particular pitch or the man sitting as the American president was doing something profoundly foolish.
In 2003 (when George W. Bush was in charge) Hamell had just signed with Righteous Babe Records, and his first album there was Tough Love [side note: this also happened to be my first exposure to Hamell, and it made a fan of me for life]. That album was brilliant and furious but, as the Bush administration trundled on and got less funny, so did Hamell’s output. Conspicuously too, when Barack Obama took office in 2009, Hamell pretty much vanished. With a Democrat doing a good job in the oval office, the singer didn’t have much to say – other than releasing the tellingly entitled The Happiest Man In The World in 2014. Now though, with Donald Trump at the head of the country and making more mess than even the Republicans can hide in a timely and effective manner, Hamell has returned – and holy fuck does he ever have a lot to say.
While “Safe” does not open Tackle Box‘s A-side as forcefully as “Don’t Kill” did for Tough Love, the urgency and unease that the song lays out is instantly engaging and sees the singer reach a cathartic equilibrium with listeners. From the very beginning, Hamell is motor-mouthing about several worries at once – wolves scratching figuratively at his door, imagining the floods have already reached nose level and the souls of the members of the population at large have already begun bouncing cheques. The things which have been worrying anyone who has watched the news since this past January are clearly already under Ed Hamell’s skin and the way he’s presented it all here is very easy to relate to.
After “Safe” gets both artist and audience on the same page, Hamell drops a few other themes that many other listeners will be able to relate to. He imagines trying to condone to his son the actions of a man who “lies compulsively, has his finger on the button of the military/ Says he grabs women by the pussy and mocks people with a disability” and whose life “lacks a spiritual core” and to explain away such conduct through “The More You Know” before literally calling a time-out with a pretty fluffy aside. “Froggy #1” shoots for a children’s singalong for those eight and under and lets listeners catch their breath.
Of course, anyone who has followed Ed Hamell before knows that, when the singer’s on a tear, they’ll have to run to keep up. But he’s going so fast and so hard from subject to subject here that it’s a flat-out sprint – even if they’re not hooked right away, listeners’ interest will be piqued and that will get them to backtrack and break down those first three songs after first exposure.
After that first turn, track four sees Hamell get a little lecherous with “She Ride It” before launching himself straight into the face of the police state – or, more accurately, the increasingly gang-seeming nature of many police departments all over North America. Here, Hamell takes the position of a man willing to speak up and against the fairly dismal conduct of many twenty-first century police officers as he cites specific examples of poor conduct which have happened in the singer’s personal life (like watching his kid get barked at by a cop, or seeing a cop go out of his way to intimidate his kid on a separate occasion) all covered beneath the blanket of cops expecting “respect for the badge” whether they worthy of it or not.
The way the entire tirade is staged (the moral of the story is, “Hey fuck-face – I’m trying to teach my kid that there’s some authority that needs to be respected, but we have no respect for you. Now I’m just trying to teach him to not get shot”) is absolutely (forgive the pun) arresting; throughout the track, Hamell plays the role of “outraged citizen” as well as that of “socio-political conscience” as he both confirms and condemns it all, and simultaneously makes those listening feel it as well as want to fall in line behind him.
After standing on such a tall and visible platform as that presented by “Not Aretha’s Respect,” hearing Hamell immediately recoil into more introspective territory as he does with “Ballad of Chris,” it’s hard to not succumb to the obvious pathetic fallacy which drives the song as Hamell pays dry-eyed tribute to a departed friend. The song serves as a perfect foil for the inflated bravado of “Not Aretha’s Respect” because the mood of the side does go right back up again to support “Dancing ‘Til The Sobbing Stops” (which closes the side); the difference in the emotional power feels that much more impressive and may give listeners cause to lift the needle and push it back to re-play that progression. The music which supports it is that attention-grabbing and impressive – it may require a second listen right away to really get it all.
After they flip the record over, listeners will be overjoyed to find that the energy level is still notched up – even if it happens to be because the song (“Bodyguard Blanket”) is about a school shooting. Hamell is clearly uninterested in pulling any punches here, and so he just keeps swinging with the furious “How I Want To Die,” the gritted teeth of the title track and the phenomenal folk-punk barnburner which is “Mouthy B.” At each turn, the singer proves he is possessed of nigh-limitless stamina as he wrings all the emotion in him into each song and just slaughters his acoustic guitar. The experience is absolutely inimitable and will have listeners sitting wide-eyed at the edge of their seats as each song ends.
Maybe it’s because the B-side’s energy remains so high and so potent that the comparatively tender disposition of “When I Cry” stands out so clearly. There, Hamell almost begrudgingly bares his soul and shifts the balance of the song to stand completely apart from everything else on the album and manages to not lose any listeners with his candor as he just walks away, standing tall.
In that end, Hamell leaves a multitude of possibilities wide open: he could continue to mine the more heartfelt ground from which he exits this album and it would not come off at all awkwardly, or he could do what fans know he does best and start some fresh fires with whatever follows Tackle Box – no one questions that the choice is the singer’s and, in the end, they’ll simply content themselves with inhabiting this Tackle Box until then. How could they not? Hamell got precisely what he needed from the fact that the U.S. elected Donald Trump: he got pissed off and that granted him an all-new lease on life. Here’s hoping he remains angry for long enough to make at least one more album.
(New West Records)
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