I hate music reviews. They usually don’t tell you anything about the music. Rather, they’re more interested in onanistic and often obscure comparisons that are more about the reviewer than the album. There’s always a line like “think Van Halen and Billy Corgan’s illegitimate lovechild screaming alongside pre-No Doubt Gwen Stefani combined with the drumming of late Sleater Kinney with Kid A‘s shifty synths played by Fujiya and Miyagi thrown in for good measure.” What does that really tell you about the sound of the album? Jack squat.
So why am I writing a music review? Well, I’m actually not reviewing Propagandhi’s Supporting Caste (March 2009) as an album but as a work of art. I’ll let you read other reviews for descriptions of the sound. Let’s just say it rocks and the musicianship is flawless. I’m more interested in the intersection of the sound with the lyrics and themes of the album. Propagandhi takes on more than politics and fascism on this album; they take on the problem of humanity itself. (. . .)
“Night Letters” jump-starts the album with a tale of a war refugee split between “this life and the one you left behind.” Poetically, the song begins the album-long technique of enjambment that adds suspense and meaning to nearly every line. “Sorrow / has followed every step of the way” applies to both the distant narrator and the war-ravaged subject of the song.
The title track is my favorite on the album. The elegiac tone of the introduction portends failure and defeat, yet the song quickly moves to some odd-rhythmic (5/8 I think) instrumental opening riffs, suggesting this story has always been off-kilter from the beginning. The story, naturally, is that of human life. The song’s (and album’s) great conceit builds on the age-old idea of the world as a stage, with all of us poor players on it. It’s a movie, in this case. There won’t be “revisions made to the script / made on behalf of a supporting caste.” The poetic voice laments how “history exalts / only the pornography of force” while the rest of us are “stricken from the narrative wholesale.” While there are no alternatives to this servitude, the song recommends enjoying what we have here in this vale of tears and refusing to both “subjugate or serve.” Although we’re born into a fallen world, we can at lease try to examine our own roles in larger worldwide system and try to expose their mythological basis.
The track “Tertium non datur” is likewise brilliant. The title means something along the lines of “there is no third” or “a third is not allowed” in Latin. The song laments the polarization inherent in politics and belief, which admits no “third term” and leaves no room for doubt. Everything is reduced to “rigid dichotomies / of the sacred and the profane / salvation and shame / fuck all in between.” The song reminds me of the “with us or against us” approach of the Bush administration after 9/11. As the song suggests, the “human impulse to explain [was] / hijacked.” Yet it’s more than just an invective against America under Bush; rather, any belief system that relies heavily on “tidy pairings / of inverse binaries.” What I love most about the song is that it’s written in a combination of 3/4 and 6/8–triple rather than duple meters. As the inverse binaries above are invoked, triplets come cascading down from the waterfall of guitar riffs. It’s also track 3 on the album. Form and content, unite!
The fourth track, “Dear Coach’s Corner,” addresses the problematic intersection of nationalism and hockey culture in Canada. Specifically, the outspoken neo-fascism of the show Hockey Night in Canada. While I’m not a huge hockey fan myself, I’ve always been a bit alarmed by the pairing of sports and national culture. Are we hitting home runs for the president here? Why are there always Army ads during NFL games? Propagandhi sees a connection between this kind of jingoistic culture and the “rallies at Nuremburg.”
“Without Love” laments the impending doom we all face, and how nature always “ends in tragedy” and pointless suffering. The losses of loved ones we all suffer should make us “comprehend the sheer magnitude of / every single precious breath you’ve ever wasted.” As with the title track, while there may be no way out of our predicament, this world is still “what we make of it.” Choose what you will.
“Last Will and Testament” rails against the pervasive helplessness to change anything that so many feel and criticizes those who (metaphorically) “gaze / idiotically back up the chain of command” for their orders. As with “Supporting Caste,” the target is not one person or nation, but all who suppose everything is predetermined and, as a consequence, no difference can be made. A threnodic introduction adds to the foreboding atmosphere of the song, which pairs nicely with the ending track, “The Funeral Procession,” while similarly laments how the narrator may never live to see “the dawn of a better day” and ends with a funereal dirge.
All in all, this is one of the best album’s I’ve heard in a long time. It rewards repeated listenings. While there are a few letdowns, overall these pale in comparison to the triumphs of Supporting Caste. The album, Propagandhi’s first in 4 years, makes a stunning impact and successfully intervenes in the way we see ourselves, those around us, and humanity itself.
A similar review by a historian can be seen here.