Great books tell stories. Here’s our pick of vivid and insightful new releases for better understanding America, world events, history, science, and theology
In one sense, Michele Bachmann's decision to recruit the country-music superstar Randy Travis to entertain her supporters in Ames, Iowa, was a misstep. Not quite one year past his divorce from his helpmeet of 19 years, Elizabeth, his conservative-Christian bonafides ain't what they used to be.
In another sense, though, Bachmann's taste in musicians represents no more compromise than that typically required of contemporary politicians intent on Getting Things Done. "Not quite one year" in today's morally amnesiac culture is practically a benchmark of penitential seriousness, especially where high-profile performing artists are concerned.
And Travis has a new album to boot, Anniversary Celebration (Warner Bros.), which, song for song, is as eloquent an examination of the family (especially marital) values that the Tea Party cherishes as it must have been an exercise in cognitive dissonance for him to record.
It's also, of course, an exercise in opportunism. Seven of its 17 songs are celebrity-duet remakes of Travis' most over-anthologized greatest hits ("Forever and Ever, Amen" with the Zac Brown Band, "Diggin' Up Bones" with John Anderson, "He Walked on Water" with Kenny Chesney, "Is It Still Over?" with Carrie Underwood), and two of the other 10 are the same one ("Everything and All," with Brad Paisley and without).
Eight of the songs, however, are new to Travis' body of work, and at least three of them-"More Life" with Don Henley, "Road to Surrender" with Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson, "Love Looks Good on You" with Kristin Chenoweth-cut to the quick so effectively that they might rope in enough liberal-leaning Eagles, Highwaymen, and Good Christian Belles fans to put Bachmann over the top in November 2012 should she somehow secure the Republican Party nomination.
Echoes from the past
In the aftermath of the recent riots in London, it would be easy to attribute to the latest album by the protean alternative-music shape-shifter PJ Harvey, Let England Shake (Island/Vagrant), a greater political significance than it seemed to have when it was released six months ago on Valentine's Day. "The West's asleep," she sings in the title track. "England's dancing days are done."
It soon becomes clear, however, that the album has nothing to do with the current convulsions of Harvey's homeland. In fact, they're nearly a century old. Yes, in a voice and amid musical settings that should forever answer the question of what Kate Bush and Yoko Ono would sound like if they ever combine their talent, Harvey laments the ravages of World War I.
But, anachronistic though her topic is, the temptation remains to see in songs such as "Bitter Branches" (which she ends by repeatedly singing "Wave goodbye") and "Written on the Forehead" (in which background singers repeatedly chant "Let it burn" and "Blood and fire" in distinctly immigrant-inflected accents) a grain of prophecy, an indication that Harvey knows all's not quiet on the Western front in 2011. It's a temptation worth resisting.
Not worth resisting is Trouble in Jerusalem (Enja), the 22nd solo album by the Lebanese oud virtuoso Rabih Aboud-Khalil. Its six pieces (three of which exceed 12 minutes) contain no words, yet the titles ("Jerusalem," "Lament," "A Prayer for Tolerance") combined with the serpentine neoclassical melodies as rendered by Aboud-Khalil, his trio, and the German Youth Orchestra tell a tale, a sad, impassioned one that has been unfolding for millennia and that will still be unfolding long after the 2012 election and England's death throes are distant memories.