Micah Schnabel - Your New Norman Rockwell (Cover Artwork)

Micah Schnabel

Your New Norman Rockwell (2017)

Last Chance Records

Empathy in the Trump-era is a hard emotion to come by. How someone could smash that voting button two Novembers ago for Adolf Twitler is likely not a feeling many have spent a lot of time contemplating. Having grown up in Ohio with many a racist neighbor, a bastard excuse for a step-dad, and a broken family that felt the ravages of a potent mix of the Great Recession and a spiraling opioid epidemic, to be quite honest, the results weren’t much of a surprise. Now living on the coast, my guess the view from Bucyrus, Ohio that November was more affirmation about the last decade than horror at the next.

Micah Schnabel, of Two Car Garage fame, has brilliantly chronicled that desperation more pointedly than any other modern-day punk rock singer. His ethos recall a less hip version of Craig Finn. While Finn writes seedy tales of status and city parties, Schnabel explores the underbelly of rural poverty, lack of access to basic necessities, and aging through life without money. Schnabel’s third solo effort Your New Norman Rockwell reflects the anxiety and desperation felt by many who did not vote for Trump but, most interestingly, with an eye towards empathy for those who did.

Your New Norman Rockwell kicks off with an eponymous opener that channels the aforementioned anxiety in tone and style. An agitated, rollicking guitar lick underscores vivid lyrics of snorting pain pills through tampon applicators and education by way of high school football coaches and child molester priests. One of the strongest features of the album is the lyrics. Schnabel paints a portrait of small town America, both the charms and challenges, with the same heart-on-his-sleeve approach he’s always brought to his music. He sings these tales with an earnestness that only comes with lived experiences.

The album oscillates between alt-country influenced rockers and agitated acoustic songs that askew the traditional verse-chorus structure for narrative reflections. “Cash 4 Gold,” “American Throwaway,” and “These Divided States” follow the latter formula observing our current political state casting stones at those who criticize without understanding the traps of rural poverty, yet not afraid to throw a punch themselves at those willing to find solace in a demagogue and the very systems trapping them. The acoustic tracks are the standouts here. “Oh, What A Bummer” and “Hello, My Name is Henry” are examples of the alt-country jams, both upbeat songs about those stuck in their situation to no fault of their own.

“White Envelope” closes out Your New Norman Rockwell and has Schnabel wondering if it “was it better to know / or not to know.” The same could be said for the message of the album. This is a tough listen, if only for how descriptive the scenes within are. It’s up to the listener to understand the empathy is for trapped individuals in the system, not the outcome of a fucked-up system.