(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)
Great albums transcend their times. Such is the case with this gem from 1985, which sounds as fresh my ears now as it did then.
In fact, if push came to shove and I really had to whittle down my voluminous Top 10 (lotsa ties!) to, say, a mere 25 titles (not as many ties!), this – the third release from Messrs. Griffin, McCarthy, Sowders & Stevens – would likely be among them. Since I bought State of Our Union at the newly minted (and now defunct) City Lights Records in State College, Pa., that fall, I don’t think I’ve gone longer than a few months without listening to it or – thanks to the 2-CD Anthology (1998) and Final Wild Songs box set (2016) – songs from it.
In many ways, the 11-song set – along with the Ryders’ 1983 E.P. 10-5-60 and 1984 LP Native Sons – served as a primer for what’s now called “Americana” music. It integrates rock ’n’ roll, R&B, country and folk into a tasty whole, contains glorious guitar work and incisive lyrics, and features melodies that burrow into the brain like a groundhog beneath a back deck. As with those earlier efforts, the Long Ryders build upon the traditions begun by such forebears as Bob Dylan, the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and Flying Burrito Brothers while incorporating a punk and post-punk ethos. They embraced the past while remaining relevant to the present, in other words, such as on the Tom Stevens-penned “Years Long Ago,” about how the nostalgic pull of the past often hides ugly truths:
“If we return to the places we lived in before
We turn from all that we’ve gained
If we lived out a life that we struggled to change
Just to turn back the calendar page
Then we’d see that our memory betrayed us
We’d see what had frightened us so
We’d hear all the voices that fall silent now
Pieces of years long ago.”
Another highlight: the anthemic “Looking for Lewis & Clark.
Another: “WDIA,” which offers a history lesson on the importance of America’s first black-run radio station to generations of black and white youth.
And another: “State of My Union.” Robert Christgau, the dean of American rock critics, said that the song “aggravates the honest chauvinism of Ronnie Van Zant’s reflections on the same subject with the gratuitous self-righteousness of Neil Young.” That’s a criticism, I think, but I find it funny. It’s a great song. Here’s a live version (and, yes, I’ve shared it before):
Here’s the album, via YouTube, in full (plus a few bonus tracks drawn from the Looking for Lewis & Clark EP that were added for the CD release):
The track listing: