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Jon Langford with Skull Orchard. (Courtesy of the artist)

Jon Langford Sings Our Impulse To Destroy

Apr 2, 2014 (Fresh Air)

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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 on his new album, and I highly recommend a 2006 book of his paintings and writings called Nashville Radio. And 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.

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 both this man's job and the current administration's use of that labor.

Now in his 50s, Langford — who's recorded many albums as a member of The Mekons and Waco Brothers — started out in punk and settled into country music for a good long time. But this new album takes 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.

On the beautiful "Lil' Ray of Light," 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.

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