Modern Life Is War
Midnight in America
odern Life Is War embody "punk" at a time when it's almost meaningless. Corrupted and co-opted by "emo," "pop," and other edgeless packaging, the word has become a record store divider, a marketing category, a lazy catch-all for anything with down-picked power chords. Punk purism exists, but it's conformist and insular, whether it be in "Spirit of '77" revivalism or the hooded uniforms of today's hardcore punk. Modern Life Is War, though, are simply themselves. Sure, for people that's a cliché—but it's depressing how bands cater to lower standards of individuality.
This Iowa quintet began in 2002, self-financing a 7" and a tour that drew label attention. My Love. My Way, a competent full-length, followed, but the band found itself on 2005's Witness. Dialing back the dissonance and testosterone typical in hardcore, the record was stripped-down, melodic, and ragged—imagine Neil Young with a Black Flag fetish covering Fugazi's 13 Songs. On Witness, Jeffrey Eaton came into his own not just as a vocalist, but as a voice for a generation. Direct yet vivid, his lyrics took a cold, hard look at growing up in Nowhere, USA. The record began, "So what the fuck are you going to do, kid? / Still rattling at the chains of the gates of the world..." Songs like "Young Man on a Spree" and "Young Man Blues" unsentimentally sketched out small town life, where the neighbor's boy goes to war, and "[w]here the smoke from hell's exhaust pipe lingers above the cheap rent in the dark night."
Down to its title, Midnight in America ups the ante. Eaton and co. are trying to write The Great American Album—and largely succeed. Of course, many political punk bands try to write The Great American Album. Invariably, though, such attempts fail, as punk slogans are as empty as campaign promises. Eaton's politics are the personal; in an interview, he said, "It's pretty fucking discouraging to feel like you don't have a voice...when it comes right down to it, I believe in making music, writing books, communicating with people, talking to people, working with people."
Thus, he shows, not tells. "Night Shift at the Potato Factory" carries the preface, "[Guitarist] Sjarm 13 got out and so can you!" The song lays out the problem:
Punching that clockThe solution, though, lies with the listener: "You better get moving, kid, cause time's a wastin'. You got the power...but only if you know you do." That's as hortatory as Eaton gets. For every invocation of "we," he reminds us of the divisions that rend: "We worked all week and we're drinking tonight / There's no end in sight in these horrible streets / Methamphetamine still rampant / Churches and bars are full but the library is vacant."
Finding solace in your hidden thoughts
Taking orders from fucking fools
Everything about it grinds down on you
Just do what you gotta do to get where you wanna go
Look in enough windows, and the town comes into focus. With its "Youth is a waiting room" line, "Useless Generation" remarkably echoes Fugazi's "Waiting Room." Likewise, Midnight shares the same measured pace as 13 Songs. Songs chug along, often revolving around a single chord, before building up to sturdy climaxes (J. Robbins, of Jawbox repute, turns in a weighty, muscular recording). "Big City Dream" withholds melody until a minute in, when an anthemic jangle lights up the landscape like the title. "Fuck the Sex Pistols" is a one-minute Roman candle, burning away false idols: "The grass was never green / There was never purity... / Fuck the Glory Days!"
Thus, no spiked mohawks or Exploited patches; this is the sound of a garage band making good. For its apparent simplicity, the songwriting is sophisticated. Often eschewing verse-chorus crutches, songs turn on subtle shifts, well-timed changes, basic yet meaningful gestures. Hints of '50s sock hop snare rolls ripple throughout. "Humble Streets" is basically a waltz, albeit with roiling riffs and desperate toms.
The liner notes betray a decidedly learned sensibility. "These Mad Dogs of Glory" places Rimbaud, Strummer, Plath, and Hunter S. Thompson in the same couplets. "Pendulum" is dedicated to Jean Seberg, who came from Marshalltown, IA, the band's hometown. "Screaming at the Moon" begins, "It's a good life if you don't weaken," the title of a graphic novel by Seth. The quote is apt; the book shares this album's small town outlook and affinity for quiet details.
However, "Stagger Lee" is the record's home run swing. In taking on this hallowed tale, Modern Life Is War join the ranks of white artists like Nick Cave, the Clash, Bob Dylan, and Woody Guthrie, as well as a lengthy list of black bluesmen and soul singers. After hundreds of previous renditions, this one doesn't break new lyrical ground; here, Stagger Lee kills Billy Lyons for sleeping with his girl, not over a hat. But he's never done so in such a throbbingly electric setting—again, think of 13 Songs. Modern Life Is War are scratching out a punk living, but with the eyes of decades.