Shooter Jennings: Black Ribbons
Photo: based on an original by Gabrielle Geiselman
If the phrase “a dystopian concept rock opera featuring Stephen King as Will O' The Wisp” fills you with horror (as well it should), then it is likely you would have avoided Shooter Jennings’s 2010 foray away from the traditional rocking country music he started out with. This is how Wikipedia describes his album Black Ribbons, a record so fragmented it does not even register under Jennings’s name on iTunes, but as Hierophant, the backing band he invented for the album.
The album’s premise appears to be that it is a pirated recording of the last radio show hosted by a disillusioned and dour DJ (Stephen King) who is broadcasting during an apocalypse. The end of the world has come to all righteous dudes in favor of The Man, who is heavily armed and clearly cannot tolerate troublemakers such as this DJ whose message is always best expressed through the songs of the band Hierophant. The last song on the album begins with his being gunned down mid-sentence, something many listeners might wish happened to open the album instead. The Inky Jukebox certainly did.
Black Ribbons is one of those albums that must seem like a good, even radical idea to its writer, but which feels like the same old shit to everyone else. People have been covering the war between the Hipsters and the Squares in various media for ever, and having Stephen King lend his creepy ennui to the soundtrack only seems to cement the comparison with them in a way that will sink it rapidly to the bottom of the river. This is exemplified in the official video for the track "Summer Of Rage" which The Inky Jukebox calls out for being indulgent and cliched. We far prefer the amateur video for "The Illuminated" below.
Someone put the whole album to scenes like this. Excellent.
If one skips the entire radio DJ tracks that intersperse the album, what is left are actually a collection of truly decent songs. This is perhaps the tragedy of this album – that Shooter Jennings shot himself in the foot by alienating a hard-won audience for his gritty, bluesy, balls-out rock. Without the “concept” angle, Black Ribbons consists of 12 tracks worth listening to. It’s easy to draw direct lines of influence (intended or not) between it and Nine Inch Nails, Pink Floyd, Soundgarden, The Clash, and even late-career Beatles, giving it a distinctly heavy tone. Stand-out tracks include the epic “The Illuminated” (which could have been an outtake from The Wall, easy), “The Breaking Point,” and “All This Could’ve Been Yours.” On all of them, Jennings’s voice reminds you of his pedigree.
The record calls to mind the fin-de-siècle imagery of past concept albums like Pink Floyd’s The Wall and of Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs,” and even of George Lucas’s masterpiece of bildungsroman Americana, American Graffiti, a film that follows a group of high-schoolers on their last night (prom!) in a small town before they all disperse to adult lives. It features the legendary DJ Wolfman Jack broadcasting retro hits from a radio tower outside town to which the protagonist (a very young Richard Dreyfuss) makes a pilgrimage to find that his hero is a regular guy behind the dials (Oz, anyone?).
If you like your country mixed with a bit of metal every now and then (and we do), then The Inky Jukebox recommends you give Black Ribbons a spin. Don’t let the radio sections put you off; just click them off. Shooter Jennings is scheduled to release his fourth as-yet-unnamed album this fall, which will be a return to his country roots. We are hoping it will give us more of what we found and liked so much on his first record, Electric Rodeo, the opening bars of which grab your ears and make your heart say Hell Yes.
(Coincidentally, the next song in The Inky Jukebox’s iTunes library (arranged alphabetically) is Iron Maiden’s “Run To The Hills,” a perfect coda.)