Benjamin Adair Murphy’s Let’s Make a King is a prime example of why blues music is as relevant as ever. America is a country divided. A large part of it hasn’t progressed since the blues was at its peak in popularity, so Murphy’s sophomore release is both a throwback and a reflection of modern American life. It is a blistering and condensed protest album that tackles gun laws, government corruption, bigotry, organized religion, and white privilege in just over 30 minutes. There are no frivolous guitar solos or lyrical clichés. Other than a few dull, non-political tracks at the end, this is a bone dry, fat trimmed piece of all-American blues.
You can’t reinvent the wheel when it comes to blues music and Let’s Make a King is no exception. The melodies, progressions and song structures aren’t too different from the ones you would have heard in Woody Guthrie’s time. Thankfully Murphy is fit to lick Woody’s bootstrap. Great blues music lives and dies by great storytelling of which Murphy has the goods. He is a BRILLIANT lyricist in that he always walks a fine line between universality and the specificity of our current times. In this way, Let’s Make a King is a 2020 album but also an album that people of the past could have related to and people of the future won’t be confused by.
Take the opening track “Your Gun.” How the hell is this not an American standard?! …And yet how could it be? 70 or 80 years ago, the average American wouldn’t have seen a problem with owning a gun. Yet it sounds like a chant that has always been. “Your gun took everything from me, but you’ve still got your gun” might as well be scribbled onto a protest sign and yelled in the streets. All of this is made more intense by Murphy’s scratchy voice that is reminiscent of Tom Waits or Howlin’ Wolf but not so much so that it’s unintelligible or coming from the absolute bottom of an ashtray. There is a lightness and sensitivity to his delivery that makes him as empathetic as he is misanthropic.
Although my favourite moments are where Murphy sounds like his eyes may roll out of their sockets. “Stupid followed Evil” could very well be a takedown of Trump and his followers, but there are enough examples scattered throughout this year to suggest that it could be about anybody. Then there is “Teach the Christians” which is a track that should probably never be played in the south. Murphy dares to ask “Who’s gonna teach the Christians of Jesus Christ” knowing full well that hypocrisy runs so deep within Christianity that he’ll be dead before he ever gets an answer.
The only thing that slows this train down is the last three tracks. I do understand Murphy’s desire to end things on a lighter note but the folky “Back Pocket Blues” “How are we doing on time?,” and “We’ve been waiting for the first day of summer” do very little to calm down the injustice. The latter is especially hokey. It’s jarring. It’s as if he’s saying that the solution to all these problems is to just forget it and enjoy the summer. Oh, how I wish things were that easy Mr. Murphy. That said if you are feeling pissed off about the dire situation of America right now, then the first nine tracks of Let’s Make a King will match your anger and then some. It’s an album that, for better or worse, claims that blues music is here to stay.
Written by Shawn Thicke
*Edited by Dominic Abate