Ken Newman wastes no time in dropping the listener into an ominous place on his 2022 release ‘What Am I Afraid Of?’ The title cut doesn’t even have the time to deliver couple of muted chords before the singer-songwriter reels off a list of the dark things clouding his mind. And it turns out, rather expectedly, at the time of his writing, he’s concerned by almost everything the real world and its plethora of socio-political demons and societal issues.
“Is it a crowded street, or a bag on a seat?”, he asks, tapping into the paranoia of a crowded America; “Is it the planet getting so damn hot, or a kid getting shot?…”, he further muses, knowing that somewhere in the US, in the time it takes him to ponder these things, there’ll have been another gun crime. Probably even several. It turns out that he could be afraid of so many things in the modern world – and rightly so – but, ultimately, the pay off is an unexpected one. With this many things to trouble his world, and with a media set to make him possibly overthink, he no longer knows what to be afraid of. It’s a very interesting point. Some things – climate change, poverty, homelessness caused by the cost of living crisis – are very real threats. Being afraid of people whom look different, or might come looking for asylum? These aren’t an issue, no matter what Fox News tries to spoon feed you. This could be a really intense opener, and one that might be off-putting to those looking for some good time rock, but Newman’s thought of that. He’s offset the lyric with a great arrangement where those aforementioned muted chords dominate, but also, a few huge and crashy rock sounds collide with a deep vocal. The effect is like hearing a pub rock band channelling a touch of 80s goth, before being put through the wringer by a band like Duff McKagan’s Loaded for good measure. With a slightly rough but almost timeless sound, it works brilliantly, setting the mood for a very interesting album where the cerebral meets the chunky, and for those taking their first listen to Newman’s work, something that could’ve been daunting merely acts as the blue touch paper for the other equally thoughtful tracks.
An instant standout, ‘Dreaming of Guns’ opens like an early Billy Bragg track, but then blossoms into a brilliant slice of blue collar rock where the ghosts of 80s Mellencamp greet the works of Nat Freedberg. Stretching his voice to suit the great music, Ken hits upon a fine but slightly gruff melody as he recounts an incident where his significant other wakes from a fire-arms fuelled nightmare. At any point over the previous forty years, the music here would have sounded like the core of American heartland rock – and its a style that Newman really nails, with a full assortment of ringing guitars and impassioned, natural vocals – but the lyric is particularly pointed within the present at the time of its writing, and with good reason. This is another example of a musician using their platform for good, and to make people think – but, as before, if the music is all you care about, that’s great too; as one of the album’s most rousing tunes, it has plenty of heart. ‘I’m Your .45’ tackles the subject of gun ownership and personifies the gun as an old fashioned western movie hero. Ramping up the idea that something that’s there supposedly to protect will ultimately destroy, Ken creates a really frightening narrative, and by applying that to a classic rockabilly groove, augmented by a slightly tougher tone, the performer straddles both the timeless and the alternative in his own way. It’s also here that his vocals take a broader approach, and with a confident croon he really sells a great melody.
A little more mature sounding, ‘We Should Do This Again’ shares a fine vocal and piano based melody, which Ken uses as a base for a lyric exploring the every day plight of the homeless. The different characters he paints are shared with some very clear imagery. There’s the “cardboard sign preacher” who expect us to “walk on by…and tomorrow we can do this again”; a woman who had a breakdown after the death of a young son, and a man whom, despite everything, still sports “a smile as big as Christmas”. It’s all about those lyrics; with the sparse melody never really varying from its initial slow chord progression, Newman forces us to listen to the words, but never does so with a heavy hand. This plays out like a brilliant Springsteen deep cut – one of those tracks that, at first, seems dwarfed by the more immediate material surrounding it, but in time, has an appeal of its own. Offering a little respite from the message based works, ‘Away From You’ revisits some of the much-loved jangle pop/college rock of the 90s, and with a solid blend of acoustic and electric guitars, sounds like a hat tip to Toad The Wet Sprocket in places, whilst a more strident lead guitar break accentuates a busy Americana in others. Musically, it’s very familiar; it is the kind of tune that’ll appeal to those who loved similar material in decades gone by, but Ken’s insistence on singing in a strange affected warble – something he doesn’t seem to use elsewhere – might make the track more of an acquired taste.
More upbeat musically, though no less lyrically pointed than the bulk of Newman’s songs, ‘Talk To You’ blends a bar room swing with a bluesy shuffle, casting the spotlight onto a jaunty piano. Newman’s affected croon is a great fit for the buoyant tune as he reels off a plethora of narky thoughts about our obsession with an omnipresent social media. Although the lyric relies on some rather easy rhyming, it has a charm and cheekiness that works. His wordy lyrics are balanced out by an arrangement that eventually hones in on an impeccably orchestrated brass section and counter vocal. Often sounding like John Hiatt making fun of Bruce Cockburn’s wordiness, it’s one of the album’s best cuts. Taking a more serious turn, ‘I Can’t Breathe’ opens with an ominous melody where ringing guitar notes and a soaring vocal come together in fine form, and with Newman eventually taking the melody into a place where a blue collar jangle collides with a post-punk edge, it quickly takes its place as one of the album’s rockiest affairs. As the title suggests, the lyric is inspired by the George Floyd tragedy, and challenges police brutality. An ever moving lyric and vocal takes in scenarios where people find themselves smothered, in the wrong place at the wrong time, fearing for their lives. It’s a lyric that even the busy music can’t keep down, and with Newman repeatedly using the phrase “It stops today” as a massive, pained hook, it gives an album with a massive socio-political conscience an even bigger sledgehammer. And with good reason; until police brutality stops, and until America can sort out its rapidly declining equality status, people need to speak out.
At the tail end of a strong run of songs, ‘The Fish Song’, rather unfortunately, changes the mood a little too dramatically. On this EG Phillips cover, Newman trades in the blue collar rock for minimalist keyboard drones and beats, and musically, this track isn’t great – but that isn’t the bigger issue here. Lyrically, it’ll be a turn off for a number of listeners, since it’s all a bit heavy handed. The humble element of being just one man trying to make it through is admirable in its own way and the idea that we be generous and feed others is equally heartfelt, but the lyric – mixing well known proverbs with concerns about pollution and the seas running empty – feels rather forced in comparison to Ken’s self-penned stuff. It doesn’t spoil an otherwise very thoughtful album, and despite being written by someone else, it sheds a little more light on Ken’s mindful approach to society, but it’s hard to imagine it’ll be anyone’s favourite track.
Unafraid of jumping between moods or sharing forthright opinions, Newman’s musical world is a sharp one, and ‘What I Am Afraid Of?’ is the kind of album that, in its own way, channels some great song writing with its social commentary and varying styles. For the more open minded listener, there’s a lot of interest within, and with Ken taking in bits of hard rock, a pinch of grubby garage rock and even a couple of bluesy shuffles, it’s never boring, even at times when it feels somehow familiar. Questioning those in the US who are pro guns, anti abortion, openly racist and anti LGBTQ, for the thoughtful rock fan, this is a collection of songs that (mostly) needs to be heard. If, on the other hand, you’re the kind of person who thinks that discussing the world’s problems and injustices is unnecessary, then it’s best if you avoid this. Ken doesn’t want you to listen either.
Visit Ken’s website here.