American Evolution does just what it says on the sleeve, telling the history of the United States of America in song – not only through the lyrics but also through musical styles. Beginning with old-time folk, Jefferson Pepper promises to move forward through Blues, Rock’n'Roll, Grunge and Americana before he’s finished.
Volume One (The Red Album) covers the historical period from 1492 to 1940, and musical genres from fiddlin’ folk to swing. It’s an ambitious project offering up everything from the discovery of America, though the Civil War and its aftermath to the Great Depression. This is well-trod ground for country singers, but one of the first things that strikes you about Pepper’s music is not only how timeless it sounds, but how modern it is while drawing so heavily on the past.
A perfect example is Trail of Tears. The fifth track, a paean to Civil War, it could be a lost outtake from a Springsteen concert but comes straight after the hoedown barn dance instrumental of Lewis and Clark Homecoming and directly before the feel-good country of Can’t Come Back.
Trail of Tears also mixes harder, more aggressive sounds with the lyrical hope and optimism of young men off to war; Can’t Come Back is a gentler tune but with darker lyrics that are themselves underpinned by a sense that not everything is hopeless: ‘Think of a time that’s ten thousand years in the future, think of a time when the blood was flowing through your veins, think of yourself as someone who hoped to make it better’.
From the midnight mariachi strings of Columbus Day, border music from the Old West, through the Mississippi reminder of Riverbank Blues to the thoroughly modern Only Survivor (which throws a further loop by including lyrics about TV while you think you’re still stuck in the 19th century) and the Led Zeppelin-esqe Dam in the River of Life, this is music that stands on its own two feet with or without the messages it wants to share.
American Evolution is a phenomenally intelligent album, dressing up its protest songs in music so beautiful you can’t resist, feeding you its politics in a cup of honey rather than shoving them down your throat. The titles of the instrumental, most traditional tracks, are loaded with meaning that lyrics could never convey – Appomattox’s cheery fiddling is named after the final defeat of General Lee, thus signifying the end of the Civil War and the defeat of the Confederates. In the cheeriness of the tune, is Jefferson telling us that this was a positive moment in American history, or are its old-fashioned strings simply a reminder that time moves on?
Sometimes the politics are more clear-cut. He’s pulling no punches in Rockefellers, Fine Fine Day and Wood and Wire but never in a way that sounds preachy or overbearing.
American Evolution’s greatest in-joke is not only its following of history through lyrics and string arrangements, but the way it plays just as intelligently with form. This is a proper album – not just a collection of songs or a pick’n'mix to choose downloads from. You need the whole kit and kaboodle for it to work: all 17 tracks, in order, in the CD case, with the sleeve artwork and lyrics. You’ll need the two follow ups (White and Blue, we presume) in the same format, and you need to play them through speakers that fill the room with the weight of this history. Sometimes, evolution can go too far.