Release Date: April 13, 2018
Label: Sunday Best Recordings
If you look closely at the cover of L.A. Salami’s 2018 album, The City of Bootmakers, you’ll notice that he’s leaning up against a wall of cultural signifiers. Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, Paul McCartney, Outkast, The White Stripes, Hunter S. Thompson, Kings of Leon, The Velvet Underground, Woody Guthrie, Marvin Gaye, and more make appearances in the surrounding collage. This sets the stage for the album to come in a number of ways. For one, it signals that it may be a genre-jumping affair (it is). But it could also be interpreted as a manifesto pointing out Salami’s many influences (it might).
Speaking of influences, Bob Dylan was often cited in reviews of Salami’s debut album, Dancing with Bad Grammar. And though Salami’s official bio does link the origins of his “love for music” to hearing “Bob Dylan on the radio,” I’d argue that his music is more than recursive mimicry. “But it’s a guy with a guitar, singing wordy lyrics,” shout the critics, “of course he’s dylanesque!” Fair enough.
Cursory comparisons like these are an unfortunate but understandable trend in modern music criticism. Owing to the never-ending deluge of music disgorging itself into critics’ ears, it’s little wonder they only listen to a smattering of songs (often the first few), draw conclusions from those, and write their pieces. It’s symptomatic of the fundamental incompatibility between music as commodity and music as art. To really listen to and digest an album takes several real-time listens at least. For an album like The City of Bootmakers, which is 55 minutes long, that means hours-worth of pre-listening before even putting fingers to keyboard. With many critics tasked with reviewing multiple albums in a week, the time requirements soon become an impossibility. Hence the shortcuts. Maybe one day there will be a “slow criticism” movement.
But I digress. Back then to the notion of influences. It’s possible to trace similarities between many of the artists featured on the album cover and Salami’s work, but is that any different than other acts operating in the broader “indie rock” sphere? Being indebted to someone is not the same as sonic similarity and appropriation.
So then, what does the music sound like? The album fades in to a vaudevillian singalong over a loping piano and acoustic guitar arrangement. Interestingly, the lyrics we hear are recycled from the opening song from Salami’s first release, Pre-E.P., albeit with different melody and cadence. The lyrics (and the song), which features a number of potential Dylan references (the Troubadour, the Watchman, and an arm tattoo), fades out with the line “I’d climb over anyone to be part of the scene.” It is an intriguing choice to open a sophomore album with such a degree of self-referentialism. But I think the fade-out is critical in this case. By cutting the lyrics here–before many of the dylanisms–where Salami declares his ambitions for musical success, it positions the artist and not the influences as the focus of what is to come.
Accordingly, the second track, “Generation L(ost),” dives into introspection. Though the lyrics are comparatively minimal, they manage not only self-deprecation, but deprection of his generation as “lame, lost, low and laborious.” This may sound like it would be depressingly didactic, but the energetic pogo of the electric guitar arrangement and the brevity of the lyrics place this one firmly in the tradition of danceable sad songs.
“Generation L(ost)” also establishes another important lyrical trait for The City of Bootmakers, namely, as a vehicle for social and political commentary. Say political music and it conjures visions of hippies singing “We Shall Overcome,” optimism in human unity, and crowds of the placard-carrying well-intentioned. Others might imagine protest music that skirts too far into the preachy. Of course, the choir is happy to gobble up a sermon, but if you’re not a congregation member, it can feel off-putting. Thankfully, L.A. Salami’s songs are neither exclusionary nor crystal-loving kumbaya.
For example, in “Who’s Cursing Us Now?” he draws parallels between prehistoric humans who invented fire and the modern day “savage with a mobile phone” who’s turned that fire into “mushroom clouds.” Likewise, in “Terrorism! (The Isis Crisis)” Salami charts the western conception of terrorism from a personal perspective, first describing how he learned about the 2017 Westminster attack, then the potential motivations of the attacker and western intervention in the Middle East. All of this is couched in a nursery rhyme-type melody punctuated by a shouted punk-rock chorus. As hopeless and unsingable as that all sounds, it somehow works.
Punk rock has a tradition of invective, but “Terrorism! (The Isis Crisis)” is more exasperated than angry. There are times when the lyrics slip into the modern cynical frame:
“And if you need to convince a Middle Eastern
Dictator to leave his home
You can hire Isis to do some terror you condone.”
Sly observation loaded with implicit message is a common rhetorical tactic these days. However, rather than rely solely on tricks like these to drive the point home, Salami incorporates more elegant allusions. For instance, in the otherwise straightforward depiction of the plight of immigrants, at the end, he quotes Keats’ “Happy Is England”:
“Happy is England! I could be content
To see no other verdure than its own…”
On the surface, this seems like a sarcastic ploy meant to underscore the contradictions of pride of place and xenophobia. If we inspect the poem more closely though, the excesses of pride quickly give way to one of those classic “grass is always greener” scenarios. No matter how great England is, Keats also longs for other places, other people. Salami’s choice of quotation cleverly undercuts the sarcasm with a nod to the idea that even England’s most vocal proponents often want to be somewhere else. And yet, they also don’t want “somewhere else” to visit England. In other words, there is complexity here.
Where the first half of the album waxes political, the second half tilts more toward personal battlegrounds. Interpersonal relations, self doubt, the passage of time, and spirituality all crop up. The arrangements maintain their variation and the lyrics maintain their poetic bent. From “The Talisman On the Age of Glass”:
“A planet cascades
Through times of seamless glue
The merthless quasar
The rock, the beast, and you”
The album unites the personal and the political in the final track, “Jean Is Gone,” which is either a tale of love gone wrong at the hands of a Frenchman, or a subtle allegory about Brexit. It features a giddy electric guitar hook over a jangly guitar strum. A gentle snare fills in the back-beat.
I only stumble onto records like this a few times in any given year. Ones I listen to so much that I can’t help but dig into the artist’s back-catalog. Ones that make me smile and take the effort to learn the lyrics so I can sing along. If that’s not enough to recommend it, then I’m not sure what is. It all adds up to one of my favorite albums of 2018.