TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Jon Langford is a Welsh born Chicago based singer-songwriter who began his career in the punk rock culture of the 1970s as part of The Mekons. He's led or been a member of numerous bands, including the Waco Brothers and the Pine Valley Cosmonauts. Langford's latest release is with another of his bands, Skull Orchard. The album's packaging also contains some of his paintings. Langford is also a prolific artist.
The new collection is called "Here Be Monsters." Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
SKULL ORCHARD: (singing) He's got a glint in his eye. He's got a glint in his eye. A satellite cross in the sky. Satellite cross in the sky. You see yourself flying so high and you're going to climb that wall a little farther in your mind, a little harder every time you fall.
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Jon Langford has spent his career illuminating lives that get ignored in celebrity culture, pointing out what he perceives as lies in political culture, and asserting himself with boldness and a rough sense of humor into art culture.
In addition to writing and performing songs, he's also an excellent artist - he's made a painting to accompany every song in the "Here Be Monsters" CD package, and I highly recommend a 2006 book of his paintings and writings called "Nashville Radio." And of course I'm here to recommend this new album of his, "Here Be Monsters," a collection that finds creative ways to dramatize man's impulse to destroy.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
ORCHARD: (singing) Sometimes life will spring up all around you. Imagination's all you really need. Your plans and your ideas have just begun. The future's sweet as sugar on your tongue. And you watch your film alone and feel like crying. Seems like every game you play they let you win. Go down to the pub and drink some rum and learn how other people get things done.
TUCKER: Langford has frequently placed his left-wing politics front and center in his music and his art. One of the most overtly political songs on this new album is "Drone Operator." Langford assumes the character of a man who oversees drone strikes, the song's pretty melody at odds with its harsh criticism of this man's job and the current administration's use of that labor.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DRONE OPERATOR")
ORCHARD: (singing) I'm not really a soldier. I'm more likely to die by car wreck or cancer than an eye in the sky. That follows them home, right in through their window. And they'll never know, they'll never know. When I was a young boy...
TUCKER: Now in his 50s, Langford started out in punk and settled into country music for a good long time. But this new album is a bit of a break from both of those genres. These are more like folk songs with rock 'n' roll instrumentation, hard rock with sentiments that can be sung in a soft voice, but whose ideas are never soft-headed.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIL' RAY OF LIGHT")
ORCHARD: (singing) Never found a subject so much to my liking. All the puff pieces and picks of the week never got it right. Never came close. They always missed the point and disappointed, misrepresented me. They can't see my head, there's so many mansions full of blind insights and beautiful poetry. Now all the doors are locked and I'm the only one with keys.
(singing) No one else deserves the chance to solve all these puzzles (unintelligible) beyond your grasp, beyond your hope. Beyond your reach, beyond your grasp, beyond your hope. Lost in the (unintelligible) Beyond your reach, beyond your grasp, beyond your hope. Fascination with myself.
TUCKER: On the beautiful song I just played, Langford and his band Skull Orchard describe a useless kind of artist: someone who creates work to be admired, to be envied and to serve as the basis for hero worship. This is the precise opposite of what Langford has been doing since the '70s.
He'd probably say that's partly because he's never become a big-time pop star. But it also has to do with a life spent making music that understands the best thing about pop is its democratic quality, that it can inspire everyone who hears it to make his or her own kind of imaginative work. For Langford, making your life your art is the highest possible goal to achieve.
GROSS: Ken Tucker reviewed Jon Langford's new album, "Here Be Monsters."