Four songs into La Radiolina, an onslaught of beefy, staccato guitar chords chop like butcher knives into a mix of vertigo-inducing electronics and air-raid sirens. Amid the chaos, a tiny voice repeatedly shouts, “Welcome to Paradise!”
This is the way Manu Chao sets the tone for his political ?reball of a new album. On La Radiolina, his ?rst studio release in six years, the multilingual singer blames the U.S.—particularly the Bush administration—for the “wind of sadness” that blows over the world today. From the reggae?ed, spaghetti-Western vibe of “Politik Kills” (in which the singer reminds us in English that political supremacy is dependant on violence, deception and an ignorant populace) to the gentle, Spanish-language “Otro Mundo” (“Another World,” his Lennonesque imagining of a world without war and fear), Chao wields his sweet voice and warm melodies as weapons of mass reconstruction.
It’s no surprise that one of the most poignant protest albums released since the U.S. invaded Iraq would come from a French singer with Spanish roots. Before the term “Latin alternative” was coined to distinguish the hip from the old-guard in rock en español, there was the band Mano Negra, which translates into English as the Black Hand. Chao, born José-Manuel Thomas Arthur Chao in Paris 46 years ago, formed that politically charged, globally important punk band in 1987, modeling it on English-language protest rockers like The Clash, Mekons, Dead Kennedys and Bob Marley.
As a solo artist, Chao hasn’t let up. The title song of his 1998 debut, Clandestino, blended laidback, freewheeling, reggae-inspired music with lyrics about being forced into exile. (His parents left their native Spain for France to escape the fascist Franco regime.) That might explain Chao’s barely concealed rage against the Bush machine in the chaotic “Rainin’ in Paradize,” wherein he reels off lines in English like, “in Baghdad, it’s no democracy, that’s just because it’s a U.S. country.”
Not everything is political in Chao’s musical world, although everything eventually comes back to politics. In the ?amenco-tinged “Me Llaman Calle” (“They Call Me Street”), he sings touchingly, in Spanish, of the lonely lives of prostitutes. And over the downhome, upbeat, bluesy funk of “Besoin de la Lune” (“I Need the Moon”), he confesses, in French, his own need for love. The album’s only weakness is the dated, retro-New Wave tune “The Bleedin Clown,” in which he assumes the clichéd image of a sad clown and stumbles over English-language lines like, “I lost my reputation crown, there’s nothing on me but a bleeding clown.” Huh?
Chao recovers quickly, though, delivering a more modern take on New Wave in “Y Ahora Qué?” (“And Now What?”), in which it seems he’s searching for a more spiritual solution to current world crises.