At first pass, “Oh My God” from Lula Wiles’ new album Shame and Sedition might come across as a breakup song. Not the sad, heartbroken kind—more like the angry, pissed-off, we-are-never-ever-getting-back-together kind. Spitting fire in second person, Isa Burke asks, “Do you think you would end up where you are? / Do you think you’re a god now, in your fancy cars? / Stepping over bodies, grinning like a movie star.”
But focus on that last chilling line, and you’ll find that “Oh My God” isn’t about a dirtbag ex experiencing a quarter-life crisis. Lula Wiles are actually addressing a much more dangerous dirtbag: Jeff Bezos. “What have you been doing since the world shut down?” they demand. “Counting all the cards you stole to build your house?”
Writing and recording during a year when billionaires’ wealth grew collectively by $3.9 trillion while most of us were surviving a pandemic, it’s no wonder Burke, Eleanor Buckland and Mali Obomsawin turned to unchecked capitalism when compiling material for their new album last summer. The liner notes mention Bezos specifically, but Shame and Sedition looks to dismantle all sorts of present-day evils. Trying on a new sound that marries lo-fi indie rock to the band’s trademark take on old-time roots music, Lula Wiles’ third album explores its namesake “concepts” (shame, and of course sedition) through the lenses of twenty-something affliction and good old-fashioned protest music.
Recorded in an old farmhouse on Wabanaki territory across three weeks during the summer of 2020, Shame and Sedition captures every bit of angst and pain that accompanied a racial reckoning and worsening pandemic. And just as the pandemic has furiously bloomed into something far beyond a public health crisis—revealing institutional crises and failing systems that have been crumbling for centuries—Shame and Sedition doesn’t just examine one aspect of our present dilemmas.
On the graceful “Television,” Lula Wiles channel their anger towards growing division and the lies we’re told about the American dream: “It’s a sharp knife between greed and ambition / You start to question what you’ve been given / Everybody’s buying when they’re selling division / And it’s all waiting for you on your television.” And on woozy album opener “In Dreams,” Obomsawin, a member of the Abenaki Nation, laments colonialism in all its terrifying forms (“Freedom / in the grave or in the tree / From the plains to the city / Chains to build the reverie”).
But the most urgent song might just be “Do You Really Want The World To End,” which features drummer Sean Trischka on lyrics and vocals. It asks the listener to “care” about those who society most often neglects and abuses. Lula Wiles sing, “In a world that takes from people like me and my friends / Do you really want the world to end?” It makes a fine companion to “Everybody (Connected),” which sways like Japanese Breakfast’s “Boyish” while playing with ideas about control and the need for connection—especially when it comes to inclusion and activism.
While Lula Wiles are reaching for something akin to the radical folk of greats like Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs, they don’t entirely abandon themes they explored on their first two records, their self-titled LP and 2019’s What Will We Do. “Mary Anne” seems to pick up where the latter’s “Hometown” left off, the fiddle taking center stage as Lula Wiles urge a childhood friend to “Get out while you can.”
And as they did frequently on What Will We Do, Lula Wiles also squeeze in some truly gut-wrenching songs about crumbling relationships and the desperate measures we take to patch them up (or escape them altogether)—particularly in our 20s. “Cold Water,” which pays homage to The Chicks’ magical harmonies, stews in the memories of a doomed relationship before finding relief in “an old country song.” “You never liked this one,” Burke snaps. “So I’ll play it all night long.” Then on “Conspiracy Theory,” Obomsawin drops the ultimate insult: “You ruin everything, even what’s already dead.”
As catastrophes like climate change, racism and the hungry beast that is capitalism continue to loom large, our instinct might be to cower in fear or—worse—ignore these threats altogether. But Lula Wiles are unafraid. Like folk music at its best, Shame and Sedition is barreling towards change, dragging Amazon and all the offenders down with it. The beasts may be hungry, but Burke, Buckland and Obomsawin are starving: “Maybe you believe that you will always rule / You may think the world is all complacent fools,” they sing with a boom on “Oh My God.” “But hunger is an engine and anger is fuel / And everybody’s hungry all because of you.”
Ellen Johnson is a former Paste music editor and forever pop culture enthusiast. Presently, she’s a copy editor, freelance writer and aspiring marathoner. You can find her tweeting about all the things on Twitter @ellen_a_johnson and re-watching Little Women on Letterboxd.