Jerry Joseph’s powerful new album, The Beautiful Madness, is full of troubling songs, and perhaps the most troubling of all is “Dead Confederate.” For this track, Joseph assumes the persona of a toppled Confederate statue. He may be made of granite, but he’s not apologizing for any of the things he’s done: “selling the bodies of black boys and girls,” burning crosses on lawns and hanging men from trees. Maybe you pulled him down in 2020, but he swears, “I will rise again out on Highway 29.”
It’s a song guaranteed to offend a lot of folks. Right-wingers who argue that the old Confederacy and the New South have nothing to do with slavery and racism will be outraged by how firmly Joseph ties them all together. And left-wingers who insist that white supremacy should not be described in any terms but unambiguous condemnation will be outraged that Joseph has let this Civil War sculpture speak for itself.
So who is the audience for this song? It’s listeners who believe that human behavior is shaped not only by rational assessments of self-interest but also by the irrational impulses of emotion and psychology. It’s for listeners who believe that art can unveil the latter factors in a way that political debate and social-science research never can. It’s for listeners who believe they can learn more from the honest confessions of their enemies than from the recycled slogans of their allies. It’s for listeners who understand the difference between the author of a song and the narrator of a song.
That’s a small audience, but it’s an audience able to appreciate songwriting at its most sophisticated and potent. It’s an audience large enough to encourage our best songwriters to push irony to its outer boundaries where singers can speak the unspeakable, discomfit the most jaded and create the grand catharsis that is art’s most intense experience.
Joseph performs “Dead Confederate” with a percussive strum of his acoustic guitar and an echo-enhanced vocal that sounds like the bitter complaint from the bottom of a gravel pit. His duet partner on the song is Jason Isbell’s slide guitar, which enters and exits like Southern ghosts marching by. The more the statue defends his history in all his ornery cussedness, the more he damns his own “Lost Cause.”
Isbell, of course, is a former member of the Drive-By Truckers, the band that plays behind Joseph on the album’s other nine songs. The band’s co-founder, Patterson Hood, produced the project and added guitar, vocal harmonies and liner notes. In those notes, he says, “Let there be no misunderstanding: This song comes down hard against the evils of bigotry and hate but does so … while totally remaining in character throughout, boldly proclaiming its wrong-headed ideals in the face of a rightly (and long overdue) changing world.”
Using a guilty narrator like this accomplishes several things. Most obviously, it gives the sinner enough rope to hang himself. And it forces us to look at a situation not from our own perspective but from an entirely different one. Less obviously, if it’s done skillfully, it requires us to recognize the speaker as fully human. His conclusions may be different, but his impulses will seem uncomfortably familiar.
The dead Confederate may traffic in the chains, hoods and rope that we would never choose. But his pride of home and his suspicion of the other smolders inside all of us, whatever our race or gender. Many of us would like to pretend that racists and murderers are an alien species that has nothing in common with ours, but songs like this one disabuse us of that fantasy. It’s healthy to be reminded of the demons that lurk within us all, for only then can we guard against them.
“Dead Confederate” isn’t the only song on The Beautiful Madness to employ a guilty narrator. “I’m in Love with Hyrum Black” is sung by the young wife of a 19th-century Mormon soldier. She declares her complete devotion to her husband no matter how many Mexicans and Indians he kills, no matter how fanatical his religious justification becomes. Once again, we have a speaker who reveals more than she meant to, who leads us to very different conclusions than her own. The Truckers give the song a loping, mid-tempo, cowboy-rock feel that’s just right.
“Sugar Smacks” is Joseph’s sequel to Lou Reed’s “Heroin,” the confession of a drug addict so repelled by the sober world that he flees into the refuge of a chemical haze. “They said clean would make it better,” Joseph sings over the stomping beat and droning guitars of the Truckers channeling the Velvet Underground, “but I miss being filthy and the cover it provides.” As soon as you begin to sympathize with the narrator, he shoves you away by bragging about the time he threw his girlfriend “down the stairs.” He’s a monster, but he’s a human monster, and that’s what makes the song work.
In the liner notes, Hood describes “Dead Confederate” as “the worthy successor to ‘Rednecks,’” Randy Newman’s masterful song with a Southern segregationist as the guilty narrator. I was reminded of the first time I heard the latter song in 1974, back when I hadn’t yet become a working critic and still had my amateur status. It was at the Cellar Door, the legendary, basement folk club in Washington’s Georgetown neighborhood.
This was a few weeks before the song was released on record, so no one in the small, packed crowd had heard it. When the song opened with the Georgia guy poking fun at himself—”We talk real funny down here; we drink too much and we laugh too loud…. We’re rednecks, rednecks, and we don’t know our ass from a hole in the ground”—the audience was exploding in big belly laughs.
Then the song pivoted, and the narrator sang, “Down here we’re too ignorant to realize that the North has set the n——- free. Yes, he’s free to be put in a cage in Harlem in New York City.” That began a long catalogue of ghettos in northern cities, each a reminder of northern hypocrisy when it lectures the South on racial justice. And the room of northern liberals went deathly quiet.
I’ve been listening to live music for more than half a century and never have I witnessed a crowd go from loud laughter to shocked silence so suddenly. It was one of the most amazing artistic experiences I’ve ever had, and it was all due to the guilty narrator.
It’s a dangerous song, because its message can so easily be misunderstood and its language can so easily offend. Newman rarely performs it live anymore for those reasons. But he still plays many of his other masterpieces featuring guilty narrators: the carnival impresario in “Davy the Fat Boy,” the slave-ship captain in “Sail Away,” the apartheid supporter in “Christmas in Capetown,” the wealthy rock fan in “My Life Is Good,” the televangelist in “The Great Debate,” Vladimir Putin in “Putin” and Satan himself in “Northern Boy.” The list goes on and on.
Lately, however, I’ve been listening a lot to an unusual song in Newman’s catalogue: “Jolly Coppers on Parade.” I’ve been drawn to it because of the ongoing debate over policing in America. The narrator in this song is a young child, too naïve to recognize the dark side of the policemen marching past him during a Thanksgiving parade. In fact, the child gushes, “Look how they keep the beat, why they’re as blue as the ocean, how the sun shines down, how their feet hardly touch the ground.”
This song is the mirror reverse of the typical Newman song, which gives us sweet music and sour lyrics. This time the lyrics are unreservedly sweet, but the music is sour. The music begins cheerfully enough, toggling between the first and fourth major chords, but just before the title-line refrain, the changes collapse into the minor second and the minor third.
This gives the song a funereal tone that suggests how a child’s idealization of the police is bound to be shattered someday. It’s a delicious device, and it sums up how many of us feel about the police today: We want them to be good, but the more we find out, the more we’re disillusioned.
Newman is the grandmaster of songs with a guilty or unreliable narrator. He has many predecessors and followers, most notably Richard Thompson, Tom Waits, Suzanne Vega, Paul Kelly, Colin Meloy, Donald Fagen, Ray Davies, Leonard Cohen and Mary Gauthier. But let’s leave the singer-songwriter genre, where this phenomenon has thrived, and take a look at Kendrick Lamar’s album, To Pimp a Butterfly.
On the album’s linchpin song, “The Blacker the Berry,” the narrator introduces himself as he’s standing over the corpse of a “homie” he has just killed. Over a beat that sounds like subway being constructed under our feet while electronic flashes strobe overhead, he announces, “I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015.” At that point, it’s unclear what he means.
The middle of the song finds the narrator trying to justify the opening homicide by pointing out every horrible instance of racism and poverty that he’s encountered. It’s a long list and entirely credible, but at the end of it, the narrator finally explains his original introduction: “Why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street when gang banging make me kill a nigga blacker than me?”
The genius of this song is that it’s clear that the author’s view is different from the narrator’s. The narrator wants to believe that the catalogue of injustices excuses the killing, but the songwriter knows better. At the same time, the narrator fears that the killing invalidates the complaints about racism, but the author knows that that’s not true either. Neither the moral failure of a racist society nor the moral failure of gun-toting gang banger can be canceled by the other. Each has to be dealt with separately.
Lamar does something similar on the album’s other tracks. On “These Walls,” the narrator delivers a conventional hip-hop brag about how much sex he’s getting, but by the end of the song, he’s poisoned by the suspicion that women are only attracted to his celebrity, not his real self. “Resentment turned into a deep depression,” he raps, “found myself screaming in a hotel room.” On “Wesley’s Theory,” the narrator is a young hip-hop star flaunting his newfound wealth and ignoring the warnings from guest rappers Dr. Dre and George Clinton of how easily parasites and taxmen can take all that money away.
Lamar’s achievement is all the more striking because he’s working in a genre that—like heavy-metal rock—defaults to self-aggrandizement in most situations. To undermine those adolescent fantasies by using the guilty narrator is as brave as it is brilliant.
The political puritans don’t like the guilty narrator. They don’t want us to read Lolita, watch The Sopranos or listen to To Pimp a Butterfly. These scolds worry that mere exposure to bad behavior will somehow infect us with a virus that will make us morally sick. But when a gifted artist allows the guilty narrator to sabotage his own message and allows us to see the dangerous tendencies in every human being, the virus becomes a vaccine that protects us all.