“Will music move your heart and mind?” –Chris Pierce, “American Silence”
Is there a word for the opposite of nostalgia? Across genres, the sound of the 1960s is one of the most commonly imitated, often out of a sentimentality for classic albums. On his new record, American Silence, LA singer/songwriter Chris Pierce uses that technique for much more poignant ends. Taking up the mantle of guitar-and-harmonica protest folk, these ten songs interrogate the role of music in addressing racism in America, weighing its necessity and its limits–they serve as a reminder of the ugliness that birthed the sound and of the continuing need for a civil rights movement that we’ve seen with a heightened intensity for the past year.
From the sound–Pierce’s clarion voice and just a few sparing harmonies–to the cover image, to the music video for the title track, this is an album project designed to stare you in the face and ask challenging questions. For example, in “American Silence,” on the willingness of white American culture to celebrate Black art and expression while declining to lend their own voices to the fight for equity–“Will your applause mean anything with stitches on your mouth?”
The most challenging by far is the midpoint of the album, incredulously titled “How Can Anybody Be Okay with This.” Here, Pierce cleverly pits the language of protest music against the words of patriotic songs. He sees blood on the amber waves of grain from “America the Beautiful” as he vents his exhaustion with the cycle of verse and chorus, progress and regression, decades of singing that have nonetheless left the core promise of “We Shall Overcome” unfulfilled.
He most vividly illustrates the length of that struggle in “Chain Gang Fourth of July,” a bluesy fusion of protest folk and post-colonial literature. As Pierce explained in a recent piece for Atwood Magazine, it draws on the language of Frederick Douglass’ 1852 speech, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” Douglass spoke on the hypocrisy of celebrating freedom in a nation where it was legal to own other human beings as property. Pierce carries it forward to demonstrate the hypocrisy of a country that not only incarcerates Black Americans at disproportionate rates, but continues to profit from that subjugation.
He draws on pre-20th century thought elsewhere as well–on “San Francisco Bay,” he sings with ironic optimism, voice full of grit, from the perspective of an Asian-American immigrant railroad worker. “Residential School” invokes the destruction of indigenous families and cultures going back to the birth of the nation. But he also draws on traumatic stories from his own life in “Sound All The Bells,” and the implication is clear; this is not ancient history. It’s an ongoing pattern.
It comes to a head on “It’s Been Burning for a While,” some of Pierce’s most memorable writing and one of his most moving vocal performances. Faced with the latest in a centuries-long series of injustices, the guitar falls away along with the catchy rhymes, and Pierce gives an anguished yell, bursting with frustration and hurt.
He sings these songs powerfully, but he also asks: why should he have to? Should it take a song to move you to compassion for the suffering of others? Probably not. But as evidenced by the somehow-still-ongoing culture war over a national anthem written by a slave-owner, music occupies a singular place in the American imagination, as a way of understanding who we are and what we stand for, good or bad. As long as that’s true, protest music will have a purpose, and Chris Pierce will deserve his place at the peak.