Inside the Masterpiece: “Hero of War” by Rise Against

The “Inside the Masterpiece” series on The Secret History of Art has heretofore dealt exclusively with plastic arts, traditional works in the art historical pantheon: paintings, sculptures, and architecture.  However “masterpiece” is a term that may be applied to performing arts just as well.  Today we begin a series that will include songs that may be categorized as “masterpieces” of their craft.

Such a list will inevitably be subjective, even more so than painting and sculpture, which has centuries of criticism and praise to draw on that has molded taste, as well as retrospect and lasting impression, all of which provide a good indication of which masterpieces are truly for the ages, as opposed to favorites of a time or an individual.  Music, particularly popular music, is another story.  It would be too easy to throw Beethoven’s 9th on a list of musical masterpieces.  That, too, has been selected already by critics and history.  But contemporary popular music is another story.

I encourage readers to write in with their own candidates for popular musical masterpieces, and their reasons why.  Well-written and relevant entries will be offered publication here.

To kick things off, today’s entry is on the song “Hero of War” by the band Rise Against.  Full disclosure: The Secret History of Art is a fan of punk music primarily, but does not discriminate, therefore this series will likely be punk-heavy.  But perhaps that is a good way to counter-balance the expectations of such a series, that it would lean towards classic rock anthems that, in many ways, are already in a new sort of Canon, one propelled by VH1 lists of “greatest rock songs.”  But we will try to approach this series as we would a classical work of art, asking why it is important, why it is worth listening to, and why it may endure.

“Hero of War” by Rise Against

Click here to listen to the song.

Rise Against is a Chicago-based hardcore punk band, formed in 1999.  The lead singer and songwriter is the charismatic Tim McIlrath, with Zach Blair on guitar, Joe Principe on bass, and Brandon Barnes on percussion.  They began, as so many punk bands do, playing locally and worked their way into the popular scene, eventually tallying three gold albums and a #3 Billboard chart album, Appeal to Reason.

Musically and lyrically they are largely the inheritors of the revolutionary and ingenious Rage Against the Machine.  McIlrath’s lyrics are brilliant works of angry, dissident poetry.  His manner of delivery mixes a brassy, powerful voice with one that can shred itself in powerful screams.  While Rage Against the Machine combined hardcore punk with rap, Rise Against is a pure hardcore punk band, although one whose music is more complicated than punk usually permits, and whose lyrics set it far above the fray.  Some songs veer towards the less-tuneful hardcore, fast, drum-driven screams.  It is no surprise that the guitarist, Zach Blair, played in the outrageously good, and sadly short-lived and little-known Boston hardcore band, Reach the Sky.  But they are at their best when they allow themselves to be tuneful, and there are few bands more capable of producing a catchy, but electrically-powerful goose-bump-inducing song.

The album Appeal to Reason (2008) is one addictively catchy song after another, but with none of the bouncy, teenage-ness that is part of appeal of pop punk (a category which includes Blink 182, by way of example).  This is catchy, heart-wrenching punk for grownups, and the ability to combine catchy with heart-wrenching is a particularly elusive potion.

Today’s Inside the Masterpiece focuses on the one slow, acoustic song from the 2008 Appeal to Reason album.  “Hero of War” is just about the most powerful song I have ever heard.  It stops the listener dead still, largely because it is a cleverly-inserted, stripped-down acoustic number, which functions like a whisper after a shouting match—it begs you to listen closer.  It is of course melodic, easily caught in the head, but the lyrics are searing.  Here they are:

He said “Son, have you seen the world?
Well, what would you say if I said that you could?
Just carry this gun and you’ll even get paid.”
I said “That sounds pretty good.”

Black leather boots
Spit-shined so bright
They cut off my hair but it looked alright
We marched and we sang
We all became friends
As we learned how to fight

A hero of war
Yeah that’s what I’ll be
And when I come home
They’ll be damn proud of me
I’ll carry this flag
To the grave if I must
Because it’s a flag that I love
And a flag that I trust

I kicked in the door
I yelled my commands
The children, they cried
But I got my man
We took him away
A bag over his face
From his family and his friends

They took off his clothes
They pissed in his hands
I told them to stop
But then I joined in
We beat him with guns
And batons not just once
But again and again

A hero of war
Yeah that’s what I’ll be
And when I come home
They’ll be damn proud of me
I’ll carry this flag
To the grave if I must
Because it’s a flag that I love
And a flag that I trust

She walked through bullets and haze
I asked her to stop
I begged her to stay
But she pressed on
So I lifted my gun
And I fired away

The shells jumped through the smoke
And into the sand
That the blood now had soaked
She collapsed with a flag in her hand
A flag white as snow

A hero of war
Is that what they see
Just medals and scars
So damn proud of me
And I brought home that flag
Now it gathers dust
But it’s a flag that I love
It’s the only flag I trust

He said, “Son, have you seen the world?
Well what would you say, if I said that you could?”
Little explanation is necessary.  The story of a young man with little imagination and direction in life, signing up for the army for lack of a better idea, initially idealistic, but then forged in the horrors and contradictions of a war in which torture and murder of innocents is par for the course would make a great novel, and has.  To pour and filter a novel into a few stanzas set to a tune is a truly remarkable feat, and a rare one.  To paint a three-dimensional character who changes over the course of the song is rarer still.  For in fiction, the protagonist should change in some profound way over the course of the novel.  How many short poems, let alone songs, can present such a story?

The song is difficult to listen to.  It did not make me cry, but came about as close as any piece of music could.  And yet we are drawn in from the start, the way some softer, gradually intensifying songs can do so well (Patti Smith’s “Pissing in a River” and Cat Power’s “The Color and the Kids” come to mind).  They begin like whispers in the darkness and rise.  This one stays pure, clean, simple, and brutal throughout.  No need for theatricality.  The words, clearly and melodically performed, are enough of a blade here.

There is a slightly-too-literal music video for this song, but it’s really unnecessary.  Close your eyes and listen, and you will feel changed.  That’s what a great song will do, every time you listen to it.

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