The first Chicago-scene album I ever bought wasn't actually a Chicago album, though after years of listening to the Waco Brothers, Freakwater, and Wilco it's hard for me to separate it from the city in my mind: it was Uncle Tupelo's Anodyne, at Dr. Wax in Evanston, when I was 16.
Their first album came out in 1990; I was growing up due east, and George Strait, he of the 59 number-one singles, was dominating the radio just before Garth Brooks took over. Strait, at the peak of his career, played pretty, actually anodyne Texas swing, the rhythm of Bob Wills with the production of Guy Lombardo. You've probably heard "Love Without End, Amen," but it's somewhat unrepresentatively country; "Drinking Champagne" (champagne?) is closer, the "Tiny Bubbles" of country music. Keith Whitley, the bluegrass prodigy turned maudlin adult-contemporary-country star and love-schlock crooner, had just died of alcohol poisoning. Hee Haw—I am not joking—switched its set from a farm to a mall. I don't think Hank done it that way. It was dark times, or more accurately lite times.
Meanwhile, in southern Illinois, were melding the best of country and punk, like future Chicagoan Jon Langford had done with the Mekons, into resonant music for the age. Their first TV appearance captures how seamlessly they were able to meld those traditions, even before No Depression was released:
I mention this because a friend sent me an essay by Brent Sirota, a longtime Pitchfork writer, U. of C. Ph.D., and associate history prof at North Carolina State, my dad's alma mater. It takes an angle on Uncle Tupelo I hadn't really considered:
Uncle Tupelo’s version [of the Carter Family's "No Depression in Heaven"] is, of course, memorialized as a band using the 1930s to comment on the era of Reagan-Bush. This is not an unfair reading. But what is missed is the re-appropriation of Depression America as a window onto the unfolding of divine providence — that is to say, as a way of escaping history, of seeing history consummated.
Plenty of punk and college rock bands bitched about rundown factory towns and diminishing prospects in late 1980s America. But rarely did such works ever reach the level of lamentation heard here, the flight from history as a method of comprehending history. Uncle Tupelo would become masters of this religious mode in subsequent years….
It explains a lot about why Uncle Tupelo spoke to me. The (implicitly or explicitly) apocalyptic Christianity I grew up in and around is, for better and worse, one of the most powerful aspects of the Southern mindset, and in its conquering of the airwaves, contemporary country had abandoned it so as not to frighten the programmers. Sirota laments its disapperance:
This is all a way of asking whether the ongoing Great Recession has produced anything of comparable weight and historical consciousness. More and more, I am deflated by the sense that art, particularly music, has ceased trying to make sense of history.
The answer, fortunately, is yes, though as far as comparable I can only speak for myself.
One is the Mae Shi, a now basically defunct six-piece noise-art-punk group from California, genres that would be the last place to look for "contemporary social and economic realities… deliberately re-framed as eschatological events." But there it is, on the first track from the 2008 album HLLLYH:
Or "Young Marks," a dance song about disillusionment in God, self, and institutions:
Don't the auto-tune fool you; it's as chilling a song as came out of the Great Recession.