M. Lockwood Porter has decided he wants his music to make a statement. His record opens with a recording of “The Preacher and the Slave”, a protest song by Industrial Workers of the World martyr Joe Hill. This sets the tone for the record, and is an excellent intro into “American Dreams Denied”. Porter has written a record filled with fury, longing, and introspection and most of it is centered on the good old USA, spelled out in no uncertain terms on this side one track one. Like countless others, for countless reasons, Porter is mad as hell and he’s not going to take it anymore. It would be a mistake to assume that Porter doesn’t understand the forces that have been arrayed in order to deny the American Dream to so many, however, or to assume that he doesn’t have concrete ideas for a path forward (as its title suggests). How To Dream Again is a record that manages to be studied and nuanced while remaining uncompromising in its ideals. If the constant use of “Born in the USA” at political rallies drives you crazy or you wait with baited breath for the next Two Cow Garage album, you’re going to want to give this record a listen.
The album’s silhouetted cover, no shortage of songs with clear messages, the slow burn of Porter’s voice, his careful guitar work, and just a splash of harmonica earn a comparison to Springsteen that many artists are given through nothing more than chord progressions and cribbed lyrics. The Boss has always been more than just a rock’n’roller who could tell a story about a girl or a car or the road or hard work or any combination of these; it’s the kinds of stories he tells and the empathy he tells them with, the catchiness of the message and the emotion with which it’s delivered. Porter certainly has empathy and emotion covered, and with a combination of pounding rock numbers, quiet acoustic songs, and tunes featuring jangling piano Porter may not be reinventing the wheel but he damn sure knows how to use it.
There’s a quick detour into the heart at the beginning of the record, notably with the agonizing “Bright Star” and its sister song “Strong Enough”. There’s hurt here, but the pain comes from the depth of emotion rather than the more common songwriting well of spite and loss. “Bright Star” is a reference to a love sonnet by John Keats, but the best line comes from Porter’s own pen: “I thirst for love that’s wild and not possessing/For a tame and slavish love is never true”. The latter is about a common enough anxiety for those experience real happiness for the first time: am I going to fuck this up? The word craft here should not be underestimated: “I’m so glad I finally let you in/It wasn’t whether, it was when”. These are the two unabashed love songs on the record, and both have apocalyptic imagery woven through them; Porter’s grand ideas and wild passions are clearly not limited just to social change.
“Joe Hill’s Dream”, an ode to the worker’s rights activist whose words open the record, features an excoriating passage about the role of music in spurring social change in the modern era: “Punk rock’s a fashion you buy at the mall/Hip-hoppers trip off the power they were fighting/These phony folk singers say nothing at all”. The scope and history of injustice in this country was once common fodder for folk music, like with so many other movements (hip-hop, punk) that are appropriated into popular culture. Spotify’s “Modern Retro” playlist is full of artists who sound like they came right out of 1964 without any of the context and hard choices the most momentous musicians faced on a regular basis. I would suggest that though there are certainly unabashed pop singers we still remember and celebrate, it is those that had a message to deliver that remain etched in the public consciousness. Sam Cooke might have been remembered without “A Change Is Gonna Come”, but his legacy would not cast the same shadow. If modern artists would wear the trappings of legends, they should try to carry on their work as well.
In “Charleston”, a somber song about the massacre of nine churchgoers by a young white supremacist, Porter makes just the right point about himself and for his predominantly straight white male audience: “The guy who says that he’s just standing by is no better than the one who starts the fight”. This is the very crux of the record. Attainment of the American dream may be possible for an individual if they’re born lucky enough and willing to compromise themselves for success, willing to ignore how their rise may keep others down. Like Joe Hill, Porter is arguing for solidarity, and that means starting with hard conversations about privilege. Porter posits that any conversation about class that ignores race is disingenuous, which (without getting up on my soap box) has proven to be a difficult fact for some on the Left to face.
If “Charleston” is the hard shot Porter serves up to you, “Sad/Satisfied” is the free-wheeling chaser to take the edge off. “You say you’re born alone and die alone/And that may be true/But what you do in between can be much bigger than you/You just have to learn to face when you hide”, and then the piece de resistance: “Don’t be so sad/Don’t be so satisfied” delivered over a melody designed to get your shoulders shaking.
Everything worth doing will be hard work. The American Dream is a prisoner’s dilemma, where it’s easier to cut and run to get ahead rather than work on the solidarity, empathy, and trust requisite in order for everyone to achieve together. When Porter asks “Can a dream that has died be revived once again?” on his record called How To Dream Again he seems to be hoping and fighting for Americans to answer back with one voice: Yes.
-Gabriel Di Chiara