Chumbawamba? The one-hit wonders from 1997? Yeah, I remember them. Kinda. Which is cool, because I am sure a lot of people do not.
Recently, I came across the name Chumbawamba once again when I received a copy of Danbert Nobacon’s album The Library Book of the World. It is the first solo album for Nobacon, the band’s lead vocalist and keyboardist, in two decades. It is also one of the most peculiar albums that I have heard in a long time. Featuring ode after ode to the political extreme left and supported musically by a… country band, Nobacon’s album is perhaps the greatest acquired taste LP in recent history.
After doing some research, I discovered that Nobacon has been an anarchist for some time, and that he and the rest of Chumbawamba had used popular music as a way to spread their anti-establishment messages to the world for years. Who would have known that from listening to “Tubthumper”? After the members of the group went their separate ways, Nobacon has continued to use music as his political forum, and The Library Book of the World is no exception. As a political moderate, I can respect views that come from the far left. So, I pulled out my “Bush is Not MY President” hat out of the closet and hoped for a great album of liberal tunes. I at least hoped for something better musical than Neil Young’s Living With War album anyway.
So was it? Well, somewhat. Nobacon’s album has two major flaws, the first being predictability. Being a recent college graduate and have listened to the lectures of several liberal sociology professors, I had a feeling I knew what he’d be discussing on the album. And sure enough, it’s all there. Nobacon hates the war, corporations, and imperialism, is not the biggest fan of religion, and is extremely upset about the way we’re treating the environment. In fact, we learn all of this in the first track on the album, “The Last Drop in the Glass.” While there should have been a “liberal overload” warning next to that first track in the album liner notes, sometimes, this predictability is not a bad thing. After all, people who know Nobacon’s politics and choose to buy the record are going to expect him to talk about these topics. When he chose to concentrate on one of his political concerns per song, and didn’t let himself become TOO preachy, things turned out pretty well. For instance, “Rock ‘N Roll Holy Wars” is a great, witty criticism of the role of organized religion in world conflicts, and “Wasps in November” is an outstanding, poetic take on global warming. On a couple of occasions, Nobacon uses his great wise-ass sense of humor to tackle such issues as computer addiction (“What Was That?”) and the horrible state of popular music and the people who listen to it (“Christopher Marlowe”). Great stuff, as is “Straight Talk (Meet Frank),” simply a wonderful little bouncy rock song. The second flaw though is that more often than not, Nobacon uses a far more direct lyrical approach to make his points. When he goes direct, the songs become far less clever, and therefore less effective. Unfortunately, this is case for at least half of Library Book, and it makes it much less appealing for music fans outside the extreme far left political spectrum.
And yet, even though Danbert Nobacon will not remind anyone of John Lennon as a lyricist for half of the record, Library Book is still a fascinating, albeit quirky, little listen. What is its saving grace? The music! Throughout the album, Jon Langford and his country-based band The Pine Valley Cosmonauts back up Nobacon wonderfully. Country music and anarchist politics? Sounds like quite an odd couple, doesn’t it? It makes more sense than one would think though because the more traditional country music made outside of the mainstream is far more liberal than “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue.” And what a great little traditional country band the Cosmonauts are! Steel guitar, fiddles, mandolins, honky tonk piano… you’ll hear all of these old-school sounds on Library Book, and they sound wonderful throughout the record. While the songs in a lyrical sense are hit or miss, the strange marriage between the band and Nobacon’s angst-filled vocals is successful for the majority of the album.
Acquired taste? Ohh yeah, this record is an acquired taste all right. If you hate politics with your music, this is definitely not for you. In fact, avoid it at all costs. And if you hate country music, this album shouldn’t be on your wish list either. Heck, even if you are a fan of Chumbawamba, there is a chance you might not like this disc. Aside from the punk-fused “Nixon is My Dentist,” none of these songs will likely be mistaken for a song made by Nobacon’s former band. But if you have an open mind about any of these issues, you just may want to check out The Library Book of the World. You may not necessarily like it all that much, but it just might be one of the most memorable musical listening experiences you’ll have this year… for better or worse.