Sterling Witt – Satyagraha
The thirteen songs on Satyagraha play like an aural equivalent of Zeus being sprung full born from the head of Minerva. Sterling Witt’s fifth album is lit it up bright by sustained explosions of inspiration, steady guitar-focused structures, muscular melody lines without a single extra note, and a vocalist who lives with every word. His songwriting here benefits from Steve Albini’s raw and warm recording and mix, but it’s just a high gloss paint job on a finely tuned sports car. The sonics might strengthen its appeal further, but this is a collection already geared towards garnering an audience. There is a strong philosophical and socio-political air surrounding some of these songs but Witt is much more of an artist than a sloganeer. While the album isn’t strictly conceptual, its title refers to a term coined by Mahatma Gandhi to describe one of the roles truth plays in our lives and many of the tracks touch on the aforementioned philosophical elements without ever pulling the album down into heavy-handed nonsense.
He’s chosen a fine song to begin the album. “Perception Deception” is a throttle-open rocker with some clever, but substantive, lyrics. Witt’s voice is a good conveyor of those lines and knows how to position himself dramatically against the guitar work. His playing is full of vigor and urgency, but the singing can often be heard as having a darkly sardonic edge. He has an unusual singing voice, but it works well with the strong punk influence fueling the music. “Love Me Death” takes a fairly common pop trope for its title, but there’s an abundance of individual spirit pulsing in every passage. Witt has some of the wide-eyed vocal exuberance of a young Paul Westerberg going on with this track, but the lyrics don’t recall those of the legendary Replacements songwriter – it simply illustrates examples of Witt working within an established tradition along with his idiosyncratic leanings. The eye for withering social commentary rises with the song “Who Do You Listen To?”, a track that has all of the necessary rock and roll firepower to catch your attention while also containing resonant and deeply thoughtful lyrics.
“Spiritual Revolution” seems to be constantly rolling during its first quarter, overlapping itself, before the tempo shifts dramatically and the song zips off. Nothing ever descends into outright chaos on this album as the energetic treatment never stops Witt and his band mates from crisply dispatching the melody. “Make It” begins with Witt sketching out the melody on his guitar before erupting into some hard-charging chord changes. The same sharp-minded lyrics marking the earlier songs distinguish this track as well and the stuttering verses alternated with the all-out chord thrashing makes for a monumentally entertaining time. Witt’s songwriting takes a more pensive turn on “The Answer”, but even this song embraces a slow build that naturally results in the full-tilt raging they unleash in the song’s second half. “I Love You More Everyday” is, far and away, the album’s most commercial rocker and to deem it such is no slight. The song represents probably the fullest realization yet of Witt’s instincts for a compelling pop song hook. “Labor” ends the album on a surprising note with a personal rumination on living in the modern world and all of its attendant dangers. It is, perhaps, an unexpected ending for the release, but Witt and his band makes every second credible. It’s a serious ending for a serious minded album. Satyagraha is a substantive artistic and musical statement from a songwriter who seems to improve exponentially with each new release.
9 out of 10 stars