Americans are having a hard time of it producing compelling music on the war. It must have something to do with the ersatz requirement of “moral authority.” As in: You have no “moral authority” to express anything about the war unless you served or were wounded, or had someone in your family killed or maimed by it. It’s shut-up-everyone-good, which is the intent of those who invented it. Singing lips sink ships; beware of careless song.
A song you should hear, though, is Dropkick Murphys’ rendition of Eric Bogle’s “Green Fields of France,” a gem inexplicably buried in the manure of a CD of ecstatic fighting punk. Originally written in 1976, it is waltzing and Celtic, carrying many influences including a strong country echo from “The Streets of Laredo” in the chorus wherein it is asked, “Did they play the pipes lowly?” “A whole generation was butchered and damned,” explains a Murphy, from the viewpoint of an observer by the grave of one Willie McBride, fallen in the charnel house battle of 1916.
However, because most of us have been excused from the war by design, ensuring no entire generation will be butchered and damned, we’re close to the dark presence in Bogle’s tune. That shadow is the silent complicity in “man’s blind indifference to his fellow man.” It stands to reason the song would never have been written had Bogle needed some kind of publicly defined “moral authority.”
So who can play the “moral authority” card? Luke Stricklin—a really young-faced veteran of Baghdad. Stricklin’s American by God’s Amazing Grace reads jingo, and it is. But it’s not exactly what was bargained on, unintentionally delivering a little bit of Jaroslav Hasek’s Catch-22 predecessor Good Soldier Svejk—a Czech novel in which the title character plays the fool to skirt duty. A futile effort: Svejk serves anyway. At one point he’s informed that the archduke Franz Ferdinand has been assassinated. Svejk shams idiocy, and pretends the leader is a local of the same name who picked up dog excrement. How does Stricklin feel about the leadership? It’s hard to tell. He declares he doesn’t care why Bush went into Iraq. But it’s not an excuse.
What is obvious is that Stricklin is deadly serious. On the song “American” he’s Svejk as the true good soldier, someone buffeted along by the machine of national service. His heart breaks because of sewage and explosions in the streets of Baghdad, comparing it to hell without referring to our part in making it that way, a fact hanging in the background like a smoke cloud from something big that was just demolished. It’s severe in its earnestness and has the flavor of the “don’t you know there are people starving in Korea” speech your mom and dad delivered, a silencer Stricklin will enforce with a punch in the teeth if whining persists.
Stricklin’s voice is superb and the session band is a crack one. They guarantee the title cut sinks in. But the songs Stricklin didn’t write furnish a flip side to the album, one that’s aligned with the Midwestern barroom character of CMT. Things dive away from the misery for “Drinkin’ Thinkin’,” which delivers another side of the bar to Gretchen Wilson’s “All Jacked Up” or Brad Paisley’s “Alcohol.” The humor is slicing but reserved in “Does That Make Me Bad,” about opinions and assholes, and “Almost Persuaded” is simply a loping shuffle on temptation. Stricklin wraps up with “Things I’m Missing,” Mellencampian in its passages, a reflection on longing for things at home. The bonus is a demo of the title tune, recorded at the front, which sears the dolled-up studio rendition. The beat wanders a little, the echo on Stricklin’s voice making it sound like a howl from the cement bunker, limned by just a hint of confusion and insecurity.