Hallelujah! I’m a Bum is a watershed album for Local H. Not only is it the most intricately arranged and carefully structured of the band’s 20-plus-year history, but it is also their first to delve so deeply into the polluted waters of partisan politics. In the past, front man Scott Lucas generally shied away from political themes in favor of more personal subject matter (see: 2008’s gut-wrenching breakup album 12 Angry Months). It’s only natural, then, that his excursions into the public sphere maintain a heavy focus on the human impact of scorched earth-party polemics. In between bouts of cynical sloganeering, Lucas introduces us to a host of eccentric narrators who greet these troubled times with a range of emotions that stretches from contentment to (more often) strangling paranoia.
His lyrics capture a sense of disillusionment that should be familiar to anyone who’s been paying attention over the past four years. “We get set free in waves again/ We’re saved again” are the first words spoken on the album, and as if to drive the point home, he returns to the theme at the album’s close with the acid couplet, “Your superman/ Says ‘Yes we can.’” But lest you think Lucas is looking for an empty chair to berate, it’s worth pointing out that his nastiest digs are reserved for the other side of the aisle. “Limit Your Change” is little more than a series of conservative non-sequiturs set to music (like this one, this one, and this one), while “Paddy Considine” sets its sights on the Fox News true-believer who views every challenge to white-male privilege as a criminal incursion on his God-given rights by a “conspiracy of toughs.” The Democratic Party may be a disappointment on a lot of fronts, but Lucas seems to suggest that the alternative (in the context of mainstream politics) is a party dangerously close to coming untethered from reality altogether.
As early as their commercial breakthrough As Good as Dead, Local H’s albums have been marked by a sort of internal coherence and thematic unity, occasionally venturing into concept-album territory. Still, there’s something unique about the scope of Hallelujah! Bits and fragments of songs are introduced and then recycled further in, as if the album, like one of Chicago’s famous L trains, is doomed to run on a perpetual circuit. Thus, the song “Cold Manor” comes back on us at the end of the album’s first half (the end of the first LP on the vinyl) as “Cold and Mannered.” The chorus to “Blue Line” shows up again as “Trash Fire Bummers.” “Look Who’s Walking on Four Legs Again” reappears as background noise heard from a CTA platform in the coda to “Paddy Considine.” And, of course, the album shudders to a close with a reprise of opening track “Waves,” aptly titled “Waves Again.”
As you may have noticed by now, Chicago’s rail system acts as one of the album’s unifying devices (dogs and canine imagery are another). The rattling of tracks, the low murmur of voices, and the hollow yet eerily personable voice of the automated conductor intrude periodically throughout the record, giving the impression that these wild confessions of fear and frustration set to music are snatches of conversation caught mid-transit. The L car becomes a modern day Virgil guiding the listener through the circles of equally, mundanely modern hell.
Musically, Hallelujah! is on par with the best entries in the H catalogue. Lucas has a knack for crafting heavy rock with strong, distinctive hooks. He’s spent the four-year interim between albums working with his chamber rock side-project, Scott Lucas And The Married Men, and it’s clear that he’s brought a little of that over with him. The sardonic country ballad “Look Who’s Walking on Four Legs Again” could have been an outtake from this year’s excellent Blood Half Moon. Other tracks find Lucas and drummer Brian St. Clair supplementing their usual two-man lineup with blaring horns, saxophone skronk, and some light keyboard effects.
There is a risk, of course, that Lucas, by tying his band’s new opus so explicitly to our present moment, will force the album into a particularly tight window of relevance. By the artist’s own admission, Hallelujah! is an album that comes with an “expiration date,” but the themes of civil disunity and political gamesmanship are likely to resonate with us long after the election results are settled, and Lucas’ mixture of mordant wit and in-your-face rock will make this a record worth revisiting.