Joan of Arc’s new record, their first full-length in about five years, begins with the sonic equivalent of an all caps, 28-point font declamatory “WHAT THE FUCK!?,” the first two words spoken and the third sung, the familiar expletive stretched from one syllable into five. Given the context that January 2017 has provided for it, that single “fuck” feels a lot like it could well be a five-note flourish of sociopolitical angst.
Graydon Carter’s now three-decades old epithet “short-fingered vulgarian” has received so much comedic play during a certain interminable campaign that it’s damn well near played out. But the famous insult appears on the album as, well, shorthand for he-who-shall-not-be-named, as in the song “F Is For Fake” when Joan of Arc’s founder and frontman, Tim Kinsella, sings, “Up close I found the king’s hands tiny and sans redeeming qualities.”
If you’re willing to look at things from this vantage point, much of the rest of the album comes into a curious sort of focus. To be clear, lyrically this record is distinctly obscure. Hardly anything is overtly narrative or representational, and while quite a few lines are instantly relatable, at least in a way that is an awkward sort of clever—case in point, the lines, “Upon entry to my friendship/ You are consenting to be photographed,” or “I know how the nicest guy in ISIS feels”—there are more than a few turns of phrase too obtuse to make any sense out of on the first dozen listens. (“My bird is a belly button/ My belly button is an eyelid/ My eyelid is a fern/ My fern is a forehead.” I don’t know.) Still, even the album title itself could be a statement on the state of the dis-union: He’s Got the Whole This Land Is Your Land in His Hands.
It’s a clever elision of two well-known American folk songs: the traditional spiritual “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” and the Woody Guthrie favorite “This Land Is Your Land.” Though the “He” in the first song traditionally refers to our fabled incorporeal and ecclesiastical figurehead, it can here be taken to refer to our new national figurehead—have we mentioned that this album’s release date was Inauguration Day?—and the song “This Land Is Your Land” stands in for the sense of progressive inclusiveness that so many of us had thought for sure was an essential aspect of the American national identity.
That Guthrie had the famous slogan “This machine kills fascists” painted on his acoustic guitar is a fact also somehow oddly apropos. (The great song name-checked here also contains a lyric that may be unfamiliar to some and which refers to “A big high wall there that tried to stop me”.) At the very least, the title of the album and its pedigree serve broadly to position the record’s contents as American music for social and political change, even if the music itself has little in common with Guthrie and folk music in the familiar sense.
In that regard, the album is electric and decidedly noisy. The first song, “Smooshed That Cocoon,” gives a good idea of what the album as a whole sounds like: electric loops of varying lengths and degrees of melodic/harmonic relevance are stacked in messy layers that rest on a solid foundation of straightforward if occasionally infectious (but not quite funky) drum grooves. Those grooves are invariably in standard 4/4 time, which allows the rest of the noise to get downright noisy without sounding like total chaos. The lyrical content, meanwhile, is sung or spoken or spoke-sung in simple tunes that lie on top of or meander in between the rest. Joan of Arc’s sound has hit a number of different marks over their 20-plus years. From punk-tinged post-rock roots to later musical moments that were strictly acoustic or that incorporated the sound of string quartet or a number of other experiments, this record finds the band’s latest incarnation in a form that’s both simpler and more muddled at the same time.
But these are muddled times. Confounding. Disheartening. Unpredictable. And this album, while it may not immediately appeal, has an earnest quality that offers its own sense of consolation. “There is no place safe/ And everything is perfect”. May we all “kill the little Hitler in [our] heart[s].”