Chuck Prophet said his new album is “political songs for people who hate protest music. I love this country and the freedom is affords us. And the song ‘Let Freedom Ring!’ is about that, but also about the . . . free market economy run riot that got us into this mess.”
Since coming to prominence in the 1980s with the Americana band Green on Red, Chuck Prophet’s tart and incisive songs have focused on either love lost – and found – or man’s elusive quest for redemption.
But earlier this year, Prophet was struck by the fear and anxiety sweeping the country. So he decided to do something different, composing a passel of songs about people on the edge trying to find their way in modern-day America.
Recorded in a Mexico City studio outfitted with vintage analog equipment, “Let Freedom Ring!” was released last month on Yep Roc Records to resoundingly positive response.
Last week, the Village Voice called it “a ‘Born in the USA’ for our time,” not just comparing it to the Bruce Springsteen classic, but suggesting the song cycle was inspired by it. Prophet, 45, doesn’t say he patterned his album after “Born in the USA,” but he appreciates the comparison.
“Hell, yeah!” Prophet said. “I hate to put myself next to Bruce Springsteen on any level, but if people think this record reminds them of some of his work, I’ll take it.
“The part I will agree with is that we sure did have a concept, in that we had a bunch of songs that go where I haven’t really gone before. When we saw what we had, I stood back, and followed that to its logical conclusion.
“There are certainly much less relationship songs than ever before. We joked that all the writing was done during a bad heat wave, and these ideas just kind of floated in (through) the open window.”
Prophet said he tells people the album is “political songs for people who hate protest music.”
Prophet approaches his material subtly, as the title cut deals with the financial meltdown. The song “Barely Exist” looks at immigration from the view of a worker whose day begins with “asbestos in your Kool-Aid.” In more of an allegory, “Sonny Liston’s Blues” uses the mysterious former heavyweight champion as a representation of our changing perceptions.
“I just think it is interesting that the more anxious we get as a culture, the more important it becomes to us to define our borders,” said Prophet.
“I love this country and the freedom is affords us. And the song ‘Let Freedom Ring!’ is about that, but also about the . . . free market economy run riot that got us into this mess.”
Prophet said he was inspired by Nick Tosches’ excellent biography about the star-crossed boxer, who was a mob-connected ex-con best-known for yielding his title to a brash young fighter named Cassius Clay, aka Muhammad Ali, in 1964.
“Sonny Liston is a fascinating American character,” said Prophet. “His life almost defines mystery – he never knew for sure when he was born, and we never knew for sure when he died. We know him as this brooding, silent figure Ali made fun of. Yet his own story was also pretty remarkable.”
Prophet decided to leave his native California to record the new album, and ended up in Mexico City, where he found the kind of old-fashioned studio he wanted.
“Modern recording has a complacency that’s crept into it,” he said. “With modern technology there is not a lot that can’t be fixed. I just wanted to record these songs with the tape rolling, come what may.”
Prophet said the studio he used was state of the art – during the Eisenhower administration.
“I could have never imagined the atmosphere in Mexico City,” Prophet said. “We had earthquakes, a swine flu panic, got shaken down by the cops. It is an energized place. With 27 million people living in that city you can actually feel the sidewalks vibrating underneath you. You find the friendliest, most helpful people, and the most corrupt cops. And the weather is like eternal spring. But there were also daily power outages – every song we finished had that feeling of triumph, because we were so happy to get another one down before the power went off.”
Jay N. Miller covers music in the Boston area. If you have information or ideas send it by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.