According to the ever-sardonic Phil Ochs, a good protest song is “so specific that you cannot mistake it for bullshit.” By that standard, Crys Matthews’ Kickstarter-funded album Changemakers (★★★★☆) is a knockout success.
As with all the best protest folk, the genius of Matthews’ songwriting lies in its bluntness. Subtlety and ambiguity are well and good for what they are, but some messages are best suited to being delivered with a sledgehammer. That ethos can be heard throughout the album. Refreshingly unafraid to lay her cards on the table and plainly diagnose social and political ills, she delivers one call to action after another.
From track to track, Matthews moves deftly between the broad and the highly specific. She pointedly calls attention to the Black Lives Matter movement in “How Many More,” gun violence in “Safe,” and the stark realities of the overdose epidemic in “This Kind of War.” When she does take a wider view, as she does on tracks like “Signs of the Times” and “Hope Revolution,” she remains grounded in the present, never risking losing her focus by straying into the overly general.
As strong and self-confident as she is, there’s great compassion in her songs as well. Perhaps the best example of this is “Call Them In,” is a touching tribute to the late Congressman John Lewis, affectionately invoking his call to “make good trouble.” Beyond that, it is also a call to embrace an activist spirit that is capable of being as welcoming as it is firm in its convictions.
The fiery title track “Changemakers” marks the album as a product of its moment, as its references to a tweeting, hate-spreading megalomaniac in the White House have already begun to feel dated. This is not necessarily a drawback, as references to these specific points in time have a different sort of weight as products of their particular time in history, when ugly historical undercurrents manifested themselves as a single, particular threat.
Those threats might come and go, but as Matthews warns, the danger they present is far from over as long as the systems that birthed them are all still in place. She underlines that point in “Time Machine,” a litany of historical and present injustices that find their parallels in the present, openly asking how many times we can find ourselves in the same situation before we are forced to admit to ourselves that some fundamental change is both necessary and urgent.
Matthews’ unflinching sense of moral clarity is complemented by the tightness and precision with which the album is crafted. The songs are clean and crisp, with slick production that takes nothing away from the warm timelessness of the simple guitar and banjo-driven melodies. Generations of singers have known the power in wrapping an urgent message in catchy, toe-tapping folk, and Crys Matthews can easily count herself among the best of them.
Changemakers is available to stream and purchase now.
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