The Arkells, one of the top rock bands in Canada, have released a new single. “Years In the Making” is an upbeat, let’s-do-this-thing tune that seems bound to become an anthem for some underdog sports team that finally gets it all together.
Here in the United States, one of our top rock bands has released some new music, too. The new album from the Drive-By Truckers is called “The Unravelling” and it’s a bleak and unsparing look at where the United States is these days. Some of the song titles alone are sufficient to sum up the mood: “Armageddon’s? Back in Town.” “Slow Ride Argument.” “Thoughts and Prayers.” “21st Century USA.” “Heroin Again.” “Babies in Cages.” “Grievance? Merchants.” Need we go on?
Keep in mind this is a band that, until recently, had not been known for writing political songs — although if you go back through its long catalog, you will find a lot of social commentary that foreshadowed this musical day of reckoning. The Alabama-born Drive-By Truckers began as your basic Southern rock band, writing tributes to their boyhood heroes in Lynyrd Skynyrd. Now they’ve delivered what Rolling Stone magazine calls “unfiltered fury” against mass shootings, immigration crackdowns, radio and TV talk show hosts, and lots of other targets.
This is not the good-time band we knew when it was singing about hot-rod racing on Southern back roads and making moonshine out in the woods, but the band would say that these are not good times.
Now, there’s lot of new music coming into the world so picking out just two data points may seem a little unfair. After all, there’s upbeat, optimistic music being produced in the United States, too, and surely somewhere in Canada there’s a band that’s making something bleak and angry. Right? Maybe — although the angriest thing we’ve been able to find from up north is “Snake Tongue” by The Beaches in which the all-female band from Toronto rages against men who leer at women — which, unfortunately, is a pretty universal phenomenon.
Here’s why the contrast of the new music by the Arkells and the Drive-By Truckers catches both our ear and our mind: They seem to sum up a pretty telling difference between Canada and the United States right now. Canada is acting like a normal country. The United States is not. Canada certainly has its problems, as all countries do, but those problems don’t seem quite as existential as the ones facing the United States.
Canada last year had an election — a very normal election. The center-left Liberal Party led by Justin Trudeau was re-elected, although with reduced numbers, over the center-right Conservative Party led by Andrew Scheer. The point is not which side won but that its two main choices fell within what we Americans would recognize as a political mainstream. Canada had other options — candidates much further to the left and much further to the right — but voters generally passed them by. The United States is now in an election year, and no one on either left or right would call this a normal election. No matter which side you’re on, it seems fair to ask: What’s wrong with us? Because something certainly is. We need only look next door to see just how abnormal we’ve become. With the exception of French-speaking Quebec and its fondness for the greasy dish called poutine, Canada is otherwise a country very much like our own. Yet somehow it has avoided many of the issues that so polarize the United States. Mass shootings are almost non-existent there; the recent one in Nova Scotia was the first since 1989. Both the left and right agree that immigration is good for the Canadian economy — and keep in mind that Canada’s level of immigration has always been higher than ours. Even the highest levels of immigration in the U.S. — 14.8% of the national population in the late 1890s — is lower than the lowest level of immigration in Canada — 15% in 1901. Today, 13.7% of the U.S. population is foreign-born — so slightly behind what we saw during the late 1800s and early 1900s — while the comparable figure in Canada is 22%. Somehow, though, our immigration rate aggravates a white backlash, while Canada, without much controversy at all, has encouraged even more immigration. Those policies, by the way, were put in place by a previous government — a conservative government. It seems reasonable to ask: Why doesn’t Canada see the awful sporadic outbursts of random violence that we do? Why are white nationalists marching here and not there? Something’s not right here —with emphasis on the word “here.” The new album by the Drive-By Truckers is but one example of how our corrosive politics is now seeping into other parts of our culture.
Now, there’s obviously a long history of protest songs. The difference is that those typically come from musicians with a history of such things — Bob Dylan and not Britney Spears. That’s why we might want to pay attention when a band without such a history — in this case, the Drive-By Truckers — feels compelled to put out not one, but two such discs. (Before “The Unravelling” came “American Band,” which mined some of the same themes). This seems akin to the time that Walter Cronkite got up from his anchor’s desk and walked across the studio to explain the Watergate scandal on a giant flowchart. If Cronkite was standing up, you knew something was up. Same thing here. You don’t have to agree with the band’s politics to agree that something’s wrong. Consider the pointed lyrics to “Thoughts and Prayers”:
When my children’s eyes look at me and they ask me to explain / It hurts me that I have to look away / The powers that be are in for shame and comeuppance / When Generation Lockdown has their day / They’ll throw the bums all out and drain the swamp for real / Perp walk ‘em down the Capitol steps and show ‘em how it feels
That’s actually the mild part of the song. The other parts aren’t fit for a family newspaper. Speaking of newspapers . . . The Arkells’ new song may sound like lightweight pop, but that band from Hamilton, Ontario has its own long history of writing socially-conscious songs, just not quite as angry as the Truckers. It’s also done something unusual — and potentially constructive. The band has urged its fans to subscribe to local newspapers as a way to stay informed. It’s even offered a deal where if you go through the band’s website to order a subscription, the band will send you a free T-shirt. That seems just as hopeful and optimistic as their new song — something the Drive-By Truckers’ album is definitely not. Read into that what you will.