Will Hoge is pissed.
He's pissed that those in power are making no real effort to stop mass shootings. He's pissed that some of his fellow Southerners remain obsessed with the Confederate flag. He's pissed that immigrants who cross the US/Mexico border are vilified and persecuted. He's pissed at the current administration. And rather than let this anger stew, he's channeled his white-hot rage into an openly political album.
Clocking in just shy of 30 minutes, My American Dream draws from the complementary streams of political punk and frank Americana — think records like Joe Strummer's Streetcore. Musically, My American Dream boasts more crunch than twang. Lyrically, Hoge's multi-tiered hooks and richly detailed characters reflect his immersion in the Nashville country music community. Hoge's frustrated message extends even beyond these eight songs and into the album's packaging, as the LP and CD versions of My American Dream come with a copy of the US Constitution. Have a little critical thought, seems to be his message; actually pick the Constitution up and read the thing.
My American Dream opens with a forthright criticism of the president himself. "Well another group of kids in high school dead / but you’re still at your golf course teeing off at nine / people marching in the streets trying to find a little peace / you sit around spouting awful shit online," Hoge sings on "Gilded Walls," his voice taut with anger. "Oh and I don't believe in the devil / but you might make me go and change my mind." Not wanting to be misinterpreted, Hoge forgoes poetry in favor of directness. The song itself is a mid-tempo country-rock anthem that would fit nicely alongside American Aquarium's most recent material.
Hoge evidently understands that country music and punk rock are more similar than they are different. In both styles, there's a strong thread of everyday people pointing out the cracks in a broken system. At their best, these are both egalitarian styles: if you can hold an acoustic guitar and play a G, a C, a D, and the occasional A- or E-minor, you can spin a honky-tonk tale about the brokenness of the world; if you can hold an electric guitar and make a power chord with two fingers, you can tell the same tale, but call it a punk tune. "Stupid Kids" is in the latter school, from the straightforward chug of its opening chords to its shout-along bridge of "turn your music up / make up your own damn song / you know you got it right / when all the old white men don't sing along." "Stupid Kids'" chorus would be right at home on a Pearl Jam album, while tragic immigrant tale "The Illegal Line" infers Springsteen.
"Thoughts and Prayers," in contrast to these rockers, is completely stripped down. Accompanied only by an acoustic guitar, Hoge skewers the increasingly clichéd political response to mass shootings. "Another politician sitting far away / doesn't matter how many got gunned down today / as you can keep your reelection bills paid / you're just a whore to the pimp that's called the NRA," he sings, the tune an echo of Dylan's "Masters of War." Its music video contains a slide show of tweets expressing the offending useless conceit, which rapidly blur together in their repetitive sameness.
For all his rage, Hoge ends the album on a hopeful note. The Ramones-esque "Nikki's a Republican Now" tells the story of someone who faithfully wore the punk-rocker uniform in high school — shaved head, Doc Martens, anti-Reagan bumper sticker — only to don the uniform of the lockstep gun-nut right-winger as an adult. "She stands up for the anthem, says a marriage is a woman and a man," an incredulous Hoge sings. "Oh my good god ... "
Yet Hoge implies that the future might be okay, in that Nikki's children have no interest in her monstrous opinions. "She kicked her son out of the house because she found out he was gay / he and his husband got a second Haitian baby on the way," he sings at the album's close. "Her daughter is a lawyer for the ACLU / with a boyfriend who's a folk-singing socialistic Jew / they don't come home to see her anymore because they think that she's insane."
Whether Hoge genuinely believes we can put bigotry, corruption, and gun violence behind us isn't clear, as there's still a lot of darkness in My American Dream's 29 minutes. Yet it is significant that he closed on a positive note. Maybe he believes we can indeed turn this ship around, or maybe his idea is to reenergize like-minded protesters and activists with an assurance that their work isn't in vain. Regardless, the light he presents is at the end of a long, dark tunnel.