The Cuyahoga River was the subject of scathing satire in the 1970s, when it was so polluted it actually caught fire where it passed through Cleveland, Ohio. That hasn’t happened again, yet. But David Dondero imagines it won’t be long until it does, due to the repeal of environmental protections by the current administration. “The Cuyahoga River caught fire again, and they were dancing on the shore, all these rich old businessmen,” is almost a throwaway line, and almost the least of the sins Dondero catalogs in his new record The Filter Bubble Blues. The unjustly obscure blue-collar troubador who was once rated as one of the “best living songwriters” by NPR’s All Songs Considered, has made a good old-fashioned album of political folk songs to greet 2020.
Right from the get-go you know what Dondero’s intent is. A “filter bubble” is defined as “a situation in which an Internet user encounters only information and opinions that conform to and reinforce their own beliefs, caused by algorithms that personalize an individual’s online experience.” He tackles that topic directly in more than one of the 10 songs on the album, accompanying himself on fingerpicked acoustic or electric guitars, with minimal backing from a mix of bass guitar, simple drumming, a vibraphone, occasional keyboard, and some pertinent sound effects.
The least subtle of the bunch is “The Presidential Palace of Pornography,” a jaunty shuffle that broadly satirizes the current occupant of the White House, with lines like “The Presidential palace has a stipper pole, the Oval Office is lined in fake gold,” a refrain of “great … making it great again,” and a mock doo-wop intro and outro. And there’s the opening track “Easy Chair,” a gently lilting song of nuclear apocaluypse in the age of social media and selfies.
Also on this general theme are “When The Pendulum Swings,” in which he ponders the eventual end of the current political situation, with swooping slide guitar glissandos emphasizing everybody’s up-and-down emotional state; and “Underwater Sculpture Garden,” a broad-brushed and somewhat lighthearted satire about the dead ideas of the conservative movement, where you can visit the statues of Confederate generals and more down beneath the waves.
Of special note is a tribute to the woman who was killed while demonstrating against racism in Charlottesville, North Carolina, in 2017, the eponymous “Heather Heyer.” And “Empty Gesture” is a scathing rebuke to gun culture and the empty offering of thoughts and prayers in the face of a mass shooting epidemic, while the upbeat folk-rocker “You Must Like The Word Like” broadly satirizes social media.
It’s not all politics and satire. Dondero finds time to sing a love song or two, including the whimsical “Laying At Your Feet,” its gentle fingerpicking augmented by ambient birdsong and the cawing of crows; and “Thought I Was A Hurricane,” filled with clever wordplay about relationships and life in general, tropical depressions and high-pressure systems.
My favorite? As is often the case it’s the final track. “All The Empty Houses” has a bluesy feel to it, but except for its lack of a rousing sing-along chorus it also seems closest to indie-rock of any of these songs with its loping tempo and creative production touches. Lyrically it contrasts the proliferation of investment housing developments in the suburbs with the increase in homeless people in the cities.
At first I was worried that these topical songs wouldn’t age well, but then I realized that isn’t much of a worry any more, when all art seems disposable. Dondero’s response to these turbulent and upsetting times is in the tradition of Woody Guthrie and others of that ilk, and deserves some attention.
(Fluff & Gravy, 2020)