Ever since he burst onto the national scene in 1997 with one work boot in hootenanny campfire sing-alongs and the other in white-riot mosh pits, Dan Bern has seemed intent on proving you can pack an acoustic guitar and still be loud and snotty (that’s a compliment). And while there’s always been a clear left-leaning subtext to his music, Bern’s latest collection is his first to go full bore on both fronts simultaneously. Timed for release on the eve of the 2004 Presidential elections, My Country II is comprised of eight songs all dealing with the more pressing national and international sociopolitical problems of the day, and all delivered with brash, in-your-face attitude (another compliment).
The opening track, “President,” is Bern’s keynote speech, and it’s a doozy, set against an all-American mélange of guitar and banjo. Swearing himself in as Chief Executive, Bern describes his first 10 days in office, during which he outlaws war, institutes universal health care, legalizes pot, inaugurates new national holidays like “Painting Day” and “No TV Day,”—and, naturally, makes John McEnroe Secretary of Tennis. He even takes the thorny issue of same-sex marriage off the table entirely: “Marry a woman / Marry a man / Marry a monkey, too,” declares President Bern. “Marry a big ole rhino, and visit him at the zoo.”
Having gotten your attention (if not your vote), Bern spends the rest of the album perched behind his self-constructed bully pulpit touching on a variety of charged topics. The coolly titled “Sammy’s Bat” promotes activism and, yes, even disobedience (“There’s a time to play by the rules / A time to cork your bat”), while “Ostrich Town” decries the ever-dangerous state of apathy. The poignant “After The Parade” looks at the aftermath of war (“Who will push my chair after the parade is done?” asks the disabled soldier), while the reggae-rhythmic title track ardently attacks those who endeavor to marginalize opposing viewpoints in the name of patriotism. This last theme is also explored in the powerful “Torn Flag,” a song whose lyrics come from a Pete Seeger poem about Old Glory being saved from those who’d use it “for wrapping lies.”
My Country II ends with as clear a statement as a politically-minded songwriter could make right now. “Bush Must Be Defeated” finds its title line repeated at least four dozen times, interspersed with rhyming shout-outs like “Future services un-needed,” “the Rose Garden weeded,” and (my favorite) “his White House bed short-sheeted.” It’s at moments like this—when his righteous rage and wit work as two sides of the same sharp blade—that inspire Dan Bern’s best work, and he certainly has picked a fitting occasion. Your move, voters.