One-man album machine Chuck Prophet returns with his follow-up to 2017’s Bobby Fuller Died For Your Sins to offer his latest musings on rock n’ roll, precocious celebrity and American political hubris. Although Prophet cut his teeth in psychedelic alt-rock band Green On Red in the ‘80s, and has released a prodigious amount of up-tempo material on his solo albums, the term “rock” feels like too strong a word for the majority of these tracks. This is less “screaming through the desert at 100mph throwing hand grenades out of the window” and more “driving to the Laser Quest at a safe and comfortable 30mph with your Dad”: still enjoyable – and you might just learn something in the process – but while the essential, rebellious folk rock soul is still there, The Land That Time Forgot represents a clear and noticeable move towards a more easy-going pop sound.
With his Beck-sings-Bob Dylan voice pushed to the forefront of the mix, Prophet’s loping, lugubrious drawl lets fly on a selection of terribly topical topics, leaving the instrumental elements of the album feeling rather flat in contrast. Although there are some inspired instrumental choices, the song structures are undemanding, and the vocal harmonies are cut from an easy-listening country cloth: pleasant, but so well-worn they’re desperately in need of some new tread. Speaking of tread, Marathon is a defiantly mid-tempo Dire Straits-alike with a vocal call and repeat from Stephanie Finch that fails to quite live up to the bluesy, propulsive promise of its central riff, but nonetheless remains catchy and infectious. Fast Kid stomps and wails like a sedated Led Zeppelin, but suffers from a jumbled, meandering chorus, and the up-tempo Womankind practically evaporates after listening.
Elsewhere, High as Johnny Thunders, Love Doesn’t Come From The Barrel of a Gun and Willi and Nillie showcase Prophet’s recent musical evolution much more aptly. These tracks burn slow, recalling Gordon Lightfoot and Drive-By Truckers in their explorations of wounded, working class heroes and bittersweet, trailer park love stories, where the music acts as an essential, evocative framework upon which to hang a complex, layered story.
Get Off The Stage, sitting tonally equidistant between When The Man Comes Around and Take a Walk on the Wild Side, is an upbeat yet blistering, openly contemptuous indictment of America’s current narcissist-in-chief: “You’re an obstruction / In democracy’s bowel / And the patient is dying”. Prophet takes a conversational, mano-a-mano approach with his lyrics and delivery which beautifully mirrors Trump’s “everyman” persona, summoning the frustration of an exasperated relative who just wants grandpa to stop taking his clothes off in public.
Nixonland, while cut from the same thematic cloth, is a darkly funny, shadowy, seductive dirge – a thoroughly modern campfire story about the downfall of America’s second most corrupt leader. The story shifts from historical truth to personal anecdote and back again – blending facts and hearsay into its own form of paranoia – and elevating the disgraced President and his tainted hometown to a haunting, almost mythical status.
As prodigious as his back catalogue is, Prophet’s true talents lie in storytelling, rather than writing exciting, dynamic music. As a result – 15 solo albums in to a long and productive career – many of the songs here are too tonally similar and unremarkable to bother even the most easily rustled of jimmies. However, as a delivery system for his trademark whimsical, blue-collar insight and cautionary political fables, The Land That Time Forgot is a success that keeps one foot in the past, but represents a confident – albeit a bit unadventurous – step towards the future.