Lonnie Holley’s third album, MITH, was released earlier this month. Before turning to music in 2012 (with the release of his first album Just Before Music), he was best known as a sculptor. The self-taught Holley achieved widespread notoriety in 1996 for a dispute with the Birmingham International Airport Authority, who condemned his sprawling sculpture gallery and attempted to seize the land. Eventually, Holley’s ever-evolving interactive art environment was moved to Harpersville. In 2004, the first major retrospective of Holley’s work, Do We Think Too Much? I Don’t Think We Can Ever Stop, was presented in Birmingham, Alabama and Birmingham, UK.
Holley’s sculpture work is largely industrial, sculpted from “consumer debris and salvage industrial ephemera.” The Ikon gallery in Birmingham describes the inquiry underlying his visual art as:
His use of redundant consumer and industrial products signifies a collision between the natural and the manmade, between industry and the environment, progress and conservation, conflicts that Holley has sought tirelessly to reconcile since his emergence as an artist.
Their description continues, citing Holley’s inspiration as being:
drawn from both American and African indigenous traditions, [and] incorporat[ing] motifs that can be found in many of Holley’s paintings and works on paper. […] these artworks echo Holley’s creative approach, working and re-working the surface, fusing bold abstraction with playful figuration.
Like his visual art, Holley’s third album also vacillates between the pull of the material and the ephemeral. The songs alternate between an intensely visceral, contemporary political focus (“I Am a Suspect”) and a galactic, timeless essence (“Coming Back [From the Distance Between the Spaces of Time]”). “I Woke Up in a Fucked-Up America,” as the title suggests, is the former. The song opens with a line that draws together the civil rights movement and contemporary issues of immigration through the use of the term “dreamer.” This ties together the struggle of Dr. Martin Luther King and the struggle of immigrants in the United States (this continues later in the song when Holley sings “A wall, a wall / All about the wall, all about the wall / Arguin’, barkin’, and fightin’ about the wall / All the way up a wall, I dreamed”).
Musically, the song begins with gentle piano notes beneath Holley’s gruff voice. This quickly shifts, and as Holley describes “sinking deeper” syncopated drums rise up in the mix. Bursts of horns also obscure and battle with his voice. The horns and percussion continue to rise up in the mix, swallowing up the quiet piano. Static and feedback also reverberate between the instruments. Holley’s voice, too, gives in to the cacophony as double-tracked vocals begin to battle one another for dominance in the song.
As the chaos crescendos, Holley yell-sings:
I woke up
It made me cry and cry
To father’s cryin’
And women marching
I woke up, I woke up, I woke up
In a fucked-up, fucked-up, fucked-up America
All so fucked-up
(Free, free, free, free)
(Free, free, free, free)
I woke up, I woke up
(Stop it, America)
In a fucked-up America
Would you make it look at me?
As the song approaches its end, the overbearing wall of sound begins to subside, slowly fading out. For a brief moment only the piano notes remain as Holley quietly sings, “Let me out of this dream,” but the calm is short lived as the final note of the song is a powerful blast from a horn.