I first encountered Shooter Jennings in early 2005, working at Universal. My job entailed designing online ads and promotional material for the artists that came through, and my first impression of every new band came from the graphic assets they sent along. There were teeny-bopper house music wannabes dressed like fucking trannies, shithead nü-metal bands you’d swear were sponsored by LA Looks, and a ton of shitty rappers, though their artwork was never any better or worse than that of the awesome rappers. You name it, I turned it into animated GIFs.
So one day, Shooter Jennings comes in. His awesome name was given to him by his parents, country icon Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter. In every official promo picture, he’s smoking and/or drinking whiskey, with a fucking handgun under his belt. His album was called Put The “O” Back In Country. I fucking loved the guy before I’d heard a note.
I still have the album, and even listen to it on occasion. But while it was refreshingly traditional (as the name sort of promised), it wasn’t really anything extraordinary. Just a decent country album for those evenings when hard liquor and a decent country album were called for.
I lost track of Shooter Jennings altogether until Thanksgiving morning, this year. An old friend and reader turned me onto a track from an album called Black Ribbons that he released last year, at which time he was calling his band Hierophant.
I’m not sure where to begin. First of all, it’s a concept album, narrated by Stephen King, playing the role of a renegade radio host, a sort of Alex Jones character, who is standing his ground to do one final broadcast before being forcibly shut down by government censorship. The story is all really just a “masquerade,” as Jennings called it, with the decay of trust in a society providing a sort of inverse metaphor to examine the value of trust and love in a personal relationship between two people.
Not a traditional country album.
In fact, it easily draws comparisons to the likes of Nine Inch Nails, David Bowie, Pink Floyd, and even Kanye West. It’s all over the place, and it all works.
The opening track, Wake Up, starts with Jennings slowly singing a haunting line over a sparse piano melody, singing not like a country singer, but rather like Ziggy Stardust under a single spotlight towards the end of a decadent opera: They say good fences… make good neighbors… for you, my friend… this might be true… And then the rhythm picks up as he twists the knife: …But you still gotta put / bars on the window to the soul inside of you. Synthesizers, of all things, kick in, along with a simple beat as the glam-space-rock song builds up, preaching against the widespread brainwashing of society via the media. Then, suddenly, the sky cracks wide open, and a stomp riff heavier than God, like something off of a Black Sabbath album comes crashing down. The jaw-dropping transition to full-on stoner metal (and back) just makes the slow, smoldering parts just that much more sharply insidious. The outro features Jennings hissing: Life is a movie / we are all actors / Don’t let them edit you out.
After that first track is the first of Stephen King’s transmissions as “Will O’The Wisp,” calling on the “truth seekers,” promising the “last breath of free speech,” and music in contrast to the usual “processed bubble-gum bullshit churned out by the overlords of doublespeak and meant to turn a gray world grayer.” Then he introduces Triskaidekaphobia, a near-perfect hybrid of folk, rock, and pop, featuring a backup chorus. Somehow the track flows seamlessly into Don’t Feed The Animals, a distorted, howling, pissed-off cut like something that clawed its way out of Trent Reznor’s studio. It should contrast like toothpaste and orange juice, but there’s an energy that ties it all together and helps it to come off like a great mixtape. Even as The Breaking Point follows the assault, a bluesy slow jam that’s four parts Hunky Dory to one part Texas Flood.
After another transmission from Will O’The Wisp, Everything Else Is Illusion is the first of the next block of songs, a dirty cross between The Beatles’ Come Together and Marilyn Manson’s Mechanical Animals. Again, pretty much the farthest thing from country imaginable, yet it’s followed by the opposite: God Bless Alabama. By being just what you’d expect it to be, it becomes strange in the way that Marilyn Munster was by being the normal one at home among weirdos.
That set closes with the album’s centerpiece, and the song that I first discovered, All Of This Could Have Been Yours. It was a great place to start, because, while not giving too many surprises away, it encapsulates most of the best the album has to offer. I knew of Shooter Jennings the country singer, yet here he is singing a blues rock ballad over a piano, with squealing guitar leads weaving in and out like something from Wish You Were Here:
Again, despite the wild variation between sounds, Black Ribbons stays anchored not only by the themes of the concept album, but by that energy that seems to replenish itself as each song builds on the one before it. That thread is the X-factor, the elusive “it” that some albums have and most others just don’t. Had this album not come from a genuine place, a truly inspired soul, it would have fallen limp and disjointed, a hodgepodge of mismatched influences without focus. And there are just a couple of parts that sort of seem to have been thrown in just to prove a point, namely the trash-rap-shithead mockery that is Fuck You I’m Famous. But with everything in proper context, the album flirts with masterpiece status, taking the listener on the sort of musical journey that only comes along a handful of times a decade.
In the second half of the album, that journey winds through some strange territory. Lights In The Sky fuses a Doobie-esque groove together with ping-ponging synth bleeps and bloops and auto-tuned backups, while Summer Of Rage sounds like Yeezy producing a Year Zero song with Jennings sneaking in Mark Lanegan impressions. The Illuminated takes all of that and mixes it together with some of those shades of Bowie and Floyd we heard earlier. And in the midst of all of this, you’ll find the title track, a stripped-down, forlorn acoustic number, as well as the straightforward rocker California Via Tennessee, like something off of the Stones’ Sticky Fingers.
Black Ribbons closes its story with When The Radio Goes Dead, and I can’t help but betray my rank as desert rock geek by comparing it to the Alain Johannes obscurity Making A Cross; It’s got precisely the same sort of vocal melody that clearly bids a sad goodbye even if sung in an alien language. Between that and an instrumental reprisal of All Of This Could Have Been Yours that serves as the closing credits, Will O’The Wisp’s final transmission ends, and I’ll say nothing more to spoil that.
Discovering this album a year after its release is disappointing only in the sense that we didn’t get a chance to help Jennings’ first week sales, or recognize it in our obligatory “best of the year” lists. But the album is no less relevant or enjoyable a year later, nor will it be five more years from now. It joins the ranks of Silverchair’s Diorama, the Deftones’ White Pony, and Kanye’s Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy as the sort of great album that surprised everyone, coming from the least likely of places, establishing not only its artist but indeed its very genre of being capable of delivering more than we’d expected.
Reviews published prior to February 23, 2015 used a 1-5 star rating system.