Nobody Left to Crown
First Appeared in The Music Box, November 2008, Volume 15, #11
Written by John Metzger
Tue November 4, 2008, 06:30 AM CST
From Freedom — his gloriously inspired outburst at the Woodstock Music & Arts Festival in 1969 — to his cover of Bob Dylan’s Just Like a Woman, Richie Havens has spent his entire career intertwining sociopolitical issues with those of a more personal nature. In this regard, his latest set Nobody Left to Crown isn’t any different, though this time, he sculpted an overarching narrative for the endeavor, which ultimately gives it a more coherent storyline. Over the course of the collection’s 13 tracks, Havens merges a few well-chosen cover tunes with his own compositions, the sum total of which is designed specifically to outline the problems America faces and highlight the importance of today’s Presidential election.
A veteran of New York City’s Greenwich Village folk scene in the early 1960s, Havens long ago was defined as a dyed-in-the-wool liberal. Consequently, it’s difficult not to view Nobody Left to Crown’s title track as an endorsement of Barack Obama. Consider this, however: the tune is not new at all. Rather, it is the reinterpretation of a song that initially appeared on Havens’ 1977 outing Mirage. Although its call for change echoes the slogan that has become the central theme for the Obama campaign, the underlying message of Havens’ thoughtful rumination contains a populist goal. His intent simply is to inspire the American populace to take responsibility for its future by actually turning up at the polls to cast a vote.
While Havens’ perspectives likely are most attuned to Democratic principles, the pitch that he makes throughout Nobody Left to Crown favors compassion over a particular ideological inclination. Given how many independents have gravitated, however cautiously, to Obama’s side in recent months, it’s clear that more than just the political left feels that America has been led off-course by the Bush Administration. For his part, Havens highlights several key issues that have been turning the election, even before the economy fell off a cliff. By pairing Say It Isn’t So with The Who’s Won’t Get Fooled Again, for example, he connects the war in Vietnam with the one in Iraq. He also twists new meaning from Andy Fairweather Low’s Standing on the Water and Citizen Cope’s Hurricane Waters, allowing them to serve as reminders of New Orleans’ catastrophic destruction.
Nobody Left to Crown’s layout, which features four distinctive acts, reinforces the impression that, perhaps, the set was designed to be a double-vinyl endeavor, and thus, it was meant to be digested in small doses. Still, in spite of Havens’ unwavering focus, Nobody Left to Crown undeniably is a flawed affair, and its problems emanate entirely from the musical arrangements that surround his words. Unfortunately, this is a longstanding issue with Havens’ albums. Although he is completely in his element when he is seated alone on stage, where he can accompany his impassioned vocals with percussive bursts from his acoustic guitar, Havens has never sounded completely at home in the recording studio. The polished production that typically adorns his work inevitably saps the energy and inspiration from his performances, which is a fate that also befalls his latest outing.
As with all of his endeavors, though, there are moments on Nobody Left to Crown when Havens is able to escape from the soft light of his surroundings. The soulful mourning in his voice ultimately elevates The Key, Say It Isn’t So, and the title track, while the anger and frustration that he pours into a cover of Jackson Browne’s Lives in the Balance is magnified by Derek Trucks’ anguished, Eastern-sounding accompaniments on slide guitar. Elsewhere, however, Havens’ presence is warm and comforting, but the affair ultimately needs to pack a greater punch. Even those who wholeheartedly agree with Havens’ assessment of life in the United States will find it challenging to get past Nobody Left to Crown’s Achilles heel.
Of Further Interest...
Nobody Left to Crown is available
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2008 The Music Box