I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. M. Lockwood Porter is the most significant protest song writer in America today. He has an incredible ability to focus his creative process on topical folk and rock ‘n’ roll. Not since Phil Ochs has a musician been so pointed. No one ever called Ochs a genre smashing gate-crasher, though. His latest, Communion In The Ashes is an allegory of fantastic realism, an “apocalyptic gospel” record about what happens after everything fails.
Political but not polemic, positive, and prophetic, Porter has ground his intelligence into epic poems about finding footing where, for most, it’s hard to find a reason to rise. To do so he uses galvanizing electric guitar, taking influence from hopeful, humanist musical heroes and applying the pop-appeal of Tom Petty, plenty of Jeff Lynne chord progressions, and Roy Orbison’s gift for haunting melody. There’s punch the air and sing-a-long anthems, heartfelt, stream-of-consciousness science-fiction prose, agnostic gospel, and love songs that express affection for not just one, but everyone.
It’s not hyperbole when I say that my advance copy found it’s way into my gestalt filing system under “play in case of emergency”. And who hasn’t had one of those lately? The pressure of surveillance capitalism on a person is enough to drive you crazy, not to mention living in a growing police state. Porter prophesied “American Dreams Denied” on his last album, shortly before democracy died in the Trump election. On Communion, though, Porter is already past that. Personal reflection, and a brilliant mind set the bar for Porter somewhere far above my own self-involvement, and on Communion he asks (and answers in several ways) “where do we go from here?”.
For Porter the first step was a prodigal return to Oklahoma, after the last songs he wrote while living in the prohibitively expensive Bay Area came to fruition. The title track attaches itself to apathy, rather than shaming it. Over a marching snare and a jangling electric Porter sings “when the bridges are all burned, and they’re warring over matches, lets hold a new communion in the ashes”. The pace creeps upward as flames, by the end the band responds en masse “woah-oh”.
Porter’s “new communion” stands our current narrative on its head, and shakes out the apocrypha. Instead of exceptionalism, and individuality he calls for collective consciousness. First learning to love himself (“Waiting For A Sign”), then others (“Didn’t Know What Love Meant”). Even the album’s process represents an emergence for Porter. His band came through as full collaborators, allowing fiery guitar man Jeremy Lyon to fly over the frets, and the rhythm section to experiment with synthesizer and syncopated beats (“Get Back To The Wild”) and extended experimental endings that give sinewy connections to the album, which is a front to back, track to track player. Even when he’s dark, as on “Blessed To Be Alive” Porter is hopeful. “Get Back To The Wild” and “Blessed to Be Alive” are the most stunning centerpiece any album that comes out this year will have. Porter’s apocalyptic gospel tales go from heading into the fray, to the last man on Earth, finding purpose and passion.
Again, these aren’t just songs. By illustrating loneliness of the modern age Porter pulls a familiar fear from every person who listens, and hands them commiseration. Porter’s sees the real apocalypse as isolation, despair, despite a technocracy of networked connection. His gospel is choosing to see that the action we need now is interaction. When he rises from those ashes he comes with thundering drums and blaring guitars. “The Dream Is Dead” is a hot rod of acknowledgment hauling ass through our issues: “there’s panic as the edifice is crumbing, the illusion of security is dead” but Porter is racing through the streets “trying to build a new world with my friends”. Porter beats swords into ploughshares with awareness, acceptance and takes a “peace made with ones back against the wall” but doesn’t take it laying down. It’s a huge artistic statement in the form of a rock song, and Porter has propelled himself to Darkness On The Edge Of Town Springsteen-level cinematic songwriting skill here.
What happens next puts a lump in my throat every time I hear it. “Anything For Greed” rides a driving, heavy as 70s AC/DC power chord riff. Porter pulls the ripcord on politicians, corporate crisis actors, and greedheads, loudly lamenting the “bootsrrap fairytale” and “war we don’t need”. It’s an incredible rock song that will crush poor taste, pouty indie, and personal inhibition.
Porter stomps out a revival song on “I’ll Do No More A-Prayin”, preaching “we’ve got to forge the future with our bonds” instead of offering thoughts and prayers, and has gone transcendent by the time he hits the hopeful tearjerker “This Fear Won’t Control Me” and the tender “Nowhere Left To Run”.
Porter’s drops of reason and positivity, ripple outward from himself, through others, past the strictures of politics, and religion, and into a new head space. Communion In The Ashes is a truly remarkable rock ‘n’ roll record.