Randall Flagg couldn’t do it, and neither could Pennywise the Clown. But Shooter Jennings pulled it off. He killed Stephen King.
Or at least he did on his latest album, Black Ribbons, a dystopian concept album that’s equal parts Nine Inch Niles and Nashville.
On the disc, the noted horror writer and Entertainment Weekly columnist King takes on the role of an Art Bell-style late-night radio host, delivering a set of on-air monologues that guide the listener through the career of the band Hierophant. In the process, King gives listeners a peek at the fascist state the U.S. has become. At the end of the concept album, King’s unnamed host is gunned down by government troops when he refuses to pull the plug on his show. It’s a surprisingly touching moment.
“You’ve gotten to know this character, and you get to really like him, and then at the end, it’s this tragic ending to it,” Jennings says. “I just felt it was a really strong way to close the whole thing out.”
But Jennings didn’t come up with the idea to kill the talk show host. The credit goes to the horror-meister.
“Ah man, it was his idea. He killed himself,” Jennings says. “After we had been working on the record, I was determined to have this DJ part and was kind of determined to get Stephen King, but I didn’t know how. But a young lady at Entertainment Weekly passed on a note I had written, and he wrote me back immediately.”
He adds, “We have still never met or spoken on the phone. It’s all been e-mail the whole time. He was just so generous and cool, and he was into the idea, so I was really blessed for the situation to come to fruition and work. The whole thing was kind of a magical time.”
The idea for Black Ribbons came to Jennings while listening to late-night talk radio. “I was driving across country from New York to L.A., kind of migrating my family back to L.A. so we could start recording, and I had this idea for a narrative, but then during that trip is when the economy crashed and the Lehmen Brothers thing happened and Madoff and all of this craziness was happening, and I was driving the whole way and just late at night listening to the radio hearing all this crazy fear-mongering and these crazy conspiracies and all of this stuff,” Jennings says. “It really made me dig and dig and dig into that world and form an opinion of my own.”
His favorite conspiracy? David Icke’s theory that a race of lizards have enslaved mankind. Read it. Learn it. Live it.
But even as Jennings was penning songs about a world where a harsh regime had an iron-grip on its citizenry, the country artist found a new kind of freedom in crafting the songs of the fictional band Hierophant. (Black Ribbons is technically by Shooter Jennings and Hierophant, his backing band for the disc and the tour.) “Having a concept like this and having a fictional band, this whole thing going, it freed me. I didn’t want it to sound like just another one of our records,” says Jennings. “It was an excuse to do whatever and really try to make it as foreign as possible.”
The end result: Arguably one of the most surprising albums of 2010. The lead off track “Wake Up” begins as a pensive piano-and-synth-driven Pink Floyd-style ballad before it takes an unexpected — and speaker shattering — turn, transforming into a riff-heavy stoner rock jam. On the track “Lights in the Sky,” Jennings and company go for a late-’70s-style screw groove — like something by the Climax Blues Band or Exile, the kind of song that’ll make you want to grow a Harry Reams-style mustache and get to some proper shagging. Hell, “Lights” even manages to make auto-tune sound good. Meanwhile, “Summer of Rage” not only boasts one of the cooler lines on the album — “a gas mask is the couture in the summer of rage” — but the keyboard intro that kicks off the tune conjures up the soundtrack to Blade Runner. And that’s not even getting into country-rock numbers on the album nor the ballads.
If there’s one downside to Black Ribbons, it’s that Jennings clearly wears his influences on his sleeve. “Don’t Feed the Animals” is uncomfortably similar to Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer,” while “Everything Else is Illusion” is right out of the Queens of the Stone Age-Chris Goss playbook and the novelty rap-rocker “Fuck You (I’m Famous)” could easily find a home on an album by the Offspring from the mid-’90s.
But all of that is easily forgiven. Black Ribbons is clearly one of the most diverse discs out there while Shooter himself displays a fearlessness matched by few in the rock ‘n’ roll biz.