Thirteen years ago, in early 2002, an album called Read Music Speak Spanish was released. The world was still in a raw post-9/11 fog, the economy was stagnant when it wasn't outright falling, and big corporations lumbered about, throwing their weight around and ballooning in size. Read Music Speak Spanish was a speedy, unapologetic stab at capitalism, an attempt to suffocate the bloated man on the other side of the glass ceiling. It was a protest album for a very specific life: suburban, pockmarked by money, malls, discount sales, and parent-teacher conferences. It was the first and — until now — the only album Desaparecidos had ever released.
Now it's 2015. Some things have changed, some haven't. The economy has improved incrementally; the Iraq War has long since officially ended, even if its repercussions and troops linger. Conor Oberst, the band's enigmatic frontman, best known for his work with Bright Eyes, has released several unrelated albums and gotten married in the interim. And for a band like Desaparecidos, all these external factors are hugely important. The world that exists outside of Payola — the album's cultural, political, and economic context — is its driving force. Problem is, 2015 might not be the context Payola needs.
In 2015, it's difficult to listen to a punk band complain about ATMs
Payola is a protest album, because Desaparecidos is a protest band. But in a musical landscape that includes works like Black Messiah and To Pimp a Butterfly, sometimes it's difficult to listen to a punk band complain about ATMs. In "Slacktivist" Oberst sings, "Just 'like' this and the problem is solved / I want to start to kick back and get involved." It's a catchy song, with a stuttering kickdrum and a group-chanted chorus, but the lyrics can't help but come off as dated. We've heard the complaints about "internet activism" for years now, and they usually come from the same guy who's convinced Kim Kardashian is at the root of the world's problems. If this album existed in a vacuum, it'd be easy to say it was great and leave it at that. But then, obviously, none of it would make any sense.
Still, it's difficult to look at Payola with a critical eye. Nobody in this album's target demo will feel much more than a warm sense of relief upon listening to it, or perhaps a slight wistfulness at how much everything has changed since 2002. Over the years, Oberst has attracted a collective of die-hard fans who would be satisfied if he kept doing the same thing forever. In "10 Steps Behind" Oberst pulls his screech back to a Bright Eyes-era whimper, and suddenly it feels hard to want anything more than that. Because personal context matters too — Payola sounds exactly like a Desaparecidos album, and for a fan, there's something intensely comforting about that. But what kind of protest album feels comforting?
What kind of protest album feels comforting?
Like Read Music Speak Spanish, Payola is fueled by two parts despair and boredom, one part rage. And sonically, it's interesting to compare to its predecessor: Matt Baum's percussion is sharper and less muddled. Oberst's nasally yalp has subdued nicely with age. The peaks are still high (so many verses are still a punch to the face), but the band has gotten much better at balancing it with lows (they often simmer into a soft, conversational tone). The album's opener "The Left is Right," begins with a sharp burst of guitars and a flurry of hi-hats. It feels optimistic. "If one must die to save the 99, maybe it's justified," Oberst sings. Payola acts like a pointed, effectual album, but I can't help but want more from it.
Sometimes, Desaparecidos gives us more. "MariKKKopa" is about Joe Arpaio, the sheriff of Arizona's Maricopa County, a militant who's been found guilty of racial profiling in a federal court and accused of a long list of civil rights abuses.
There's a lynching at Home Depot
Of the last day laborer
In this sanctuary city
With its anchor-baby births
They say ‘It's time we had some justice
'For the white race on this earth'
This place is strange and getting stranger.'
It's not subtle, but the lyrics sting as much as Oberst's throat burns. Likewise, "Te Amo Carmila Vallejo" references the 2011 Chilean student protests, which asked for an end to the privatization of education. The song begins with a low percussive rumble that builds as layers of guitars dog pile on top of each other, trying to fight their way to the top.
The world has kept spinning while Desaparecidos still takes their baseball bat to limousines
Oberst and his cohorts have never seen Desaparecidos as more than a side project, a place to test a more aggressive sound, more political lyrics, and see what sticks. Payola is proof of this. Some tracks stick, and some — like the scratchy Black Flag-esque "Anonymous" — just slide off the wall into a puddle of capitalist goo. For the most part though, the world has kept spinning while Desaparecidos, with some amount of tunnel-vision, still takes their baseball bat to limousines. It's not fair to ask one album to target all of society's ills, but few are stepping up to the plate like this in 2015. On "Underground Man," Oberst sings, "You got lots of big ideas, but no one can hear them now." As much as it actually might kill me to say it, he could be talking about himself.