It’s been more than a decade since Desaparecidos’ first album, Read Music/Speak Spanish, and the intervening years have done little to improve the state of the sociopolitical issues that drove that record’s lyrics. American consumerism, militarism, gender politics, and the rapacious capitalism that underlines it all—there aren’t many areas one can point to and say, “Well, that’s way better than it was a decade ago.” As a result, it should be no surprise to hear that the band’s latest, Payola, still has many of those problems on its mind, delivered in a manner just as bracing and energetic as in 2002. What has changed somewhat is the band’s focus. This album wants to inspire listeners, and in so doing, it sacrifices a little bit of the explosive spirit that made the first record so potent.
The anger on Payola is directed, and while that makes for a more organized message and manifesto, it also loses some of the vitality that animated Read Music/Speak Spanish. It doesn’t quite get preachy, but it comes dangerously close at points. Occasionally, with songs like “Te Amo Camilla Vallejo” and album closer “Anonymous,” the words struggle to match the music, with a Tom Morello-like earnestness that actually detracts from the righteous anger. It feels too planned, like these songs are expecting applause at the end just for their subject matter, rather than their merits. (Other times, the hectoring feels like it misses the mark altogether, like the indictment of Muslim Culture in “10 Steps Behind”—ostensibly on behalf of its women—that feels too patronizing by half. Similarly, “Backsell” offers a critique of the music industry that frontman Conor Oberst dealt with more artfully—not to mention more succinctly—on the previous release.)
But to focus too much on these weaker elements is to ignore the overall pleasures of this blast of furious frustration, of which there are many. Musically, the group hews even closer to the manner and style of midwestern punk than it did in the past, bouncing from the Hüsker Dü bounce of “Ralphy’s Cut” to the Dillinger Four-esque strains of “Underground Man.” The derivations from the formula work, too: “Slacktivist” feels like a Superchunk song (even the title), all four chords and irony, while “Von Maur Massacre” offers a West Coast synth-punk assault, like an ’80s hardcore kid’s idea of 21st century rock. In general, the keyboards are more prominent this time around, often leading the melody rather than providing ballast.
Most importantly, the best songs are still supercharged, fist-raising sing-alongs, both hummable and shout-able in equal measure. Opener “The Left Is Right” is the album’s statement of purpose, Oberst’s repeated “We’re taking it back” paired with pealing guitars that start at a crescendo and build from there. Short and to the point, it’s a distillation of rock ’n’ roll exhortation that sets the tone for the ensuing record. “Golden Parachutes” is the best summation of that midwestern punk vibe. It’s the catchiest song on the record, and the sharpest indictment of a hyper-capitalist culture that fetes the money-makers simply for making money. It also features some of Oberst’s most biting lines: describing Wall Street America as a “locker room of CFOs / Telling racist jokes” is almost Ginsbergian in its evocative imagery.
When Payola goes too far with the hectoring, its politics start to wear, becoming a stump speech rather than a blast of anger. But the band mostly manages to stay on the right side of that tipping point, favoring storytelling of the Springsteen variety, of poor souls and beaten-down workers suckered by the American dream. Most of the tracks end with a pounding drum beat, paired to a fusillade of explosive yelps and cries. Oberst and company are best when they concern themselves less with trying to inspire, and more with the musical equivalent of yelling, “Burn it down!”