Let me say right at the start, I was not prepared for this record. Until I listened to 10,000 Years, I’d considered The Honeydogs that other twangy pop band from Minneapolis. Smart and likable, to be sure, but not in The Jayhawks’ class. Quite simply, nothing the Adam Levy-led band had done previously suggested they were capable of concocting a work anywhere near this musically or thematically ambitious. If you thought Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was pushing the envelope for onetime alt.country bands, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet, cowboy.
For years, Levy has juggled two careers; his fulltime “day job” as a social worker put him in direct contact with disenfranchised individuals ranging from troubled urban teens to Somali refugees, and those experiences have found their way into his writing. While The Honeydogs’ last album, Here’s Luck (recorded in 1998 but not released until three years later), introduced a budding social consciousness to the material, here it takes center stage on almost certainly the most overtly political pop record since Jackson Browne’s 1986 LP, Lives in the Balance. But while Browne’s was a straightforward diatribe aimed at the Reagan administration, Levy presents his concerns in the form of a futuristic fable. Employing a Tommy-like narrative—beginning with the birth of a genetically perfect test tube baby and concluding with the discovery that the sex-determining 23rd chromosome is “evil’s home”—Levy examines, in heatedly impressionistic detail, the profound moral issues of our time.
In all its wrenching detail, 10,000 Years is a contemporary epic poem that embodies the tenor (and terror) of these troubled times as it moves from poverty and violence in America’s cities to religious and cultural warfare on a global scale, forming in its totality a frightening pre-apocalyptic vision underlain with just a glimmer of hope. Pop records aren’t supposed to testify like this, but 10,000 Years is still quite distinctly a pop record.
Levy is shrewd enough to know that contemporary listeners aren’t used to finding heavy issues embedded in catchy pop tunes (like when you don’t realize the Hershey’s kiss you’re biting into has an almond at its center). Nor does he expect them to follow along as if he were giving a lecture, so he sprinkles the songs with lines that rise out of the dense verbiage like flares, not only coinciding with the melodic hooks but also crystallizing the record’s thematic payload—lines like “Anyplace but here / Anytime but now / Anything but this” (“Test Tube Kid”), “My greens turn to brown in my salad days” (“Damascus Way”), “They’re melting their toys down for the war effort” and “Please wake me up when it’s over” (both from “10,000 Years”). Caution: You may actually find yourself singing along with this unremittingly somber stuff.
Considering its unsettling nature, the album would be difficult to choke down if it weren’t as musically seductive as it is conceptually radical. Rather than presenting this edgy material with matching corrosiveness, as Jeff Tweedy did on Foxtrot, Levy, working with gifted producer John “Strawberry” Fields and a revolving cast of skilled musicians—including Jellyfish auteur Andy Sturmer, Michael Penn, ex-Rembrandt Phil Solem and the other four band members—has nestled his disturbing subject matter within unabashedly melodic, strikingly ornate and largely accessible musical settings.
Scattered amid the elegant pop arrangements, expect to find some idiomatic curveballs. “Were the Heavens Standing Blindly?,” which presents harrowing images of the Holocaust, is cast as a jaunty Brecht-Weill-derived cabaret number; “Hygiene” is a refracted dervish dance; and the closing “23rd Chromosome” is presented as a languid bossa nova, with all attendant irony. For the most part, though, the songs draw their inspiration from the standard icons: Brian Wilson, Badfinger and Jellyfish (“The Rake’s Progress”), Steely Dan (“Panhandler’s Serenade”), Randy Newman (“Ms. Anne Thrope”— wink, wink), Tom Waits (“Before the Fall”) and, above all, The Beatles.
“Last War Lullaby,” the album’s extraordinary eight-and-a-half-minute centerpiece, interpolates both “Tomorrow Never Knows” and the climax of Abbey Road during the course of its several movements as it soldiers toward the desperately impassioned payoff, “Shackle the mad so the sane can flourish / We can nourish a sick world” — which, when you think about it, isn’t so far removed from “The love you take / Is equal to the love you make.”
Levy, Fields and supporting cast have not only captured the zeitgeist with stunning accuracy, they’ve made a brave, important, utterly unprecedented album, about which I can state with utter confidence: John Lennon would approve.