On the new "Protest Songs and Party Anthems," the Supagroup lead singer has turned his attention from backstage shenanigans to the world we live in.
Protest songs and party anthems are two sides of the same coin. They’re both calls to action, and they’re about the moment. Good protest songs aren’t worrying about posterity and how a song will hold up for future generations, and party anthems ask you to ignore tomorrow and live in the moment. On Protest Songs and Party Anthems by the Chris Lee Band, Lee’s twist is that these songs are the same thing.
While in Supagroup, Chris Lee and his brother Benji spoke a musical and lyrical language pioneered by AC/DC, Van Halen, Aerosmith, and a generation of bands that today are associated with an era of indulgence. They used that language to talk about rock, which was part of its genius and challenge. That language is still Lee’s default, which means the songs hit with the impact and drive of classic hard rock, and if you’re not listening for the subtext, the protest part can slip by. “Real Go Getter” on first listen sounds like a description of a woman from Supagroup song 10 years later, moving on from the wild life but still not quite on the up and up. Eventually, the emphasis on lies and unchecked ambition becomes a tip that Lee’s singing about Kellyanne Conway, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and the women of Fox.
Similarly, it’s not immediately obvious that the opening track, “Hail to the Strongman,” is sung by the politician with despotic aspirations, nor do the lyrics make it clear what’s wrong with his dreams because, of course, the politician’s plans sound perfect to him. Once you pick up the thread, the song makes sense and even though we can debate whether Donald Trump—the obvious reference point and the golum lurking in the shadows of most of these songs—is as strategic and self-aware as Lee portrays the strongman, but it’s clear that we shouldn’t cheer him in the way that the chorus invites.
That’s the challenge of Protest Songs and Party Anthems. It asks listeners to think about lyrics with the kind of scrutiny that English majors live for, and the album places those lyrics in complicating settings. Does anthemic party rock work as a tool to get people to think? Or do the genre conventions undermine the message? What happens when a fist-pumping chorus is matched with nuanced lyrics? Famously, Ronald Reagan and a lot of hawks heard Bruce Springsteen’s anti-war “Born in the USA” as a patriotic battle cry and a suitable soundtrack for scrambling the jets. Lee’s not Springsteen or Woody Guthrie, whose working class populism was largely missed by those who co-opted “This Land is Your Land” and made it blandly patriotic. His aspirations aren’t as bold, as illustrated by “Rockers on the Left,” which wonders if we can’t all just get along and party. It’s a call for unity and understanding that puts aside the question we’re all bumping into on social media right now—do you really want to party with people who love living under the strongman? And do they want to party with you? The divisions are deeper than “tastes great” versus “less filling,” but the song glosses over that fact.
Protest Songs and Party Anthems is best understood as exactly what it is—Lee eight years after Supagroup’s last album. Songs about wild girls backstage don’t land quite as well over time, and he’s already written those. Instead, he wrote about what’s on his mind and although they’re recorded here, they’ll likely carry more weight in concert where he can set the songs up and crowd energy can push through the odd spots. That counts because protest songs and party anthems are communal music, meant to bring people together and be heard en masse.
Lee speaks ‘70s & ‘80s hard rock as well as anybody, and he can deliver that kind of song with style and wise guy bravado. He’s got the party anthem side wired; the protest side is an interesting development, and it is yet another backhanded tribute to the strongman himself. As I’ve said before, he can radicalize anyone.
The Chris Lee Band plays an album release show Friday night at One Eyed Jacks with Greazy Alice opening.