When the opening song on a disc is titled "The Way the Empire Fell," it's a good bet you're listening to a singer-songwriter unafraid to show that he's steeped in the history of American protest music. On The Better Angels, John Francis has no qualms about announcing his intentions.
The anthemic sound of "Empire" recalls some 1980s big-hair bands. The lyrics, though, are firmly rooted in the first decade of the 21st century. Shifting between Tommy, a migrant worker, and Wall Street Joey, each watches the fall from a very different perspective. After an INS raid, Tommy is shackled at the ankles "in the land of the free." Opportunities run dry. Joey’s banker calls to repossess his car and summer home. "It was all too late; he'd gone too far / He slit his wrists with his credit card."
It’s a heavy start to an album. And a lingering electric guitar riff hints at a repeat of the heaviness on the very next song. Instead, praise the boom-chicka-boom that breaks out then, as Francis lightens the mood with "Johnny Cash on the Radio" -- the tune's opening is a homage to Cash's backing band, the Tennessee Three, and its famous sound. With a jaunty feel and lighter lyrics ("I got a prayin' Momma, I'm her only son / Broke her heart every time my Bible Belt come undone"), it offers levity and a lovely, and wholly appropriate, tribute. The Better Angels was produced by John Carter Cash and recorded at the Cash Cabin Studio in Hendersonville, Tennessee, where Johnny Cash laid down most of his late-in-life and brilliant American Recordings.
Francis experiments with a range of musical styles. "People on the Edge of the World" evokes a bit of New Orleans ragtime. His love songs come with a healthy dose of the blues, especially "Call Me When You're Ready" and the wistful "Mississippi." The excellent "Prayer in a Time of Drought" has an elegiac feel, with lyrics that both mourn and rebuke: "Let it rain on the soldiers returnin’ / Rain for the soldiers who won't ... Let it rain on the conscience of nations / Rain on their bold armaments / Let it rust through the pride of their flagpoles / Drownin' out their arrogance."
Occasionally a song falls flat. Although it won ASCAP's Jay Gorney Award for socially conscious lyrics, the series of rhetorical questions in the song "Who" ("Who took the heart out of the heartland?") doesn’t quite work for me. And Francis' voice sounds especially thin as he reaches for the upper registers.
Other efforts work beautifully. The album’s most affecting song is "Brother's Keeper." It opens with a twangy instrumental verse of "Amazing Grace" on pedal steel guitar. Francis then launches into the story of Gator, a Vietnam vet and methamphetamine addict who vows to kill the drunk driver who killed his wife and daughter. Like the best story-songs from Bruce Springsteen, another of Francis' musical progenitors, the tale and the telling haunt the listener, right up to the moment Gator points his gun. "Now I've never been a Christian man on account of what I'd seen / But I swear by my daughter’s grave a great white light came down between.”
With The Better Angels -- through the stark realism of this album -- John Francis is clearly his brother's keeper.
Kimberly Burge is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.