My 22nd Favorite Song of All-Time

is:

“Ashes in the Fall” by Rage Against the Machine

Rage Against the Machine are surely one of the smartest, most socially-aware bands that has ever existed. Their songbook is brimming with examples of subject matter and lyrics that would make Woody Guthrie proud, coupled with a gnarled, modern, harsh rock sound that turns the gentle acoustic strumming of the original folk artists on its head.  It is angry music for angry words.

Zack de la Rocha, the vocalist and lyricist, has very high amibitions for every song he writes, which often results in brilliance, but just as often gets too academic or wordsy for his own good.  In my opinion, “Ashes in the Fall”, from the band’s final album The Battle of Los Angeles, is the absolute height of de la Rocha’s power as a lyricist, and a rowsing endorsement of the band’s musical prowess.

The beginning of the song is a rambling, free-associative rant about the viscious cycles that perpetuate our “haves” and “have-nots” society.  de la Rocha doesn’t explain more than he has to.  He creates images, tells half-stories, trusting careful listeners to go back over these things and picture them, contemplate them, figure them out.  This is not “easy” music.  The song opens “A mass of hands press/ on the market window/ Ghosts of progress/ dressed in slow death”…the owners of these hands are “glaring through the promise/ upon the food that rots slowly in the aisle”.  What exactly is he talking about?  What does this supermarket have to do with anything?  Careful repeat listens reveal simple meanings.

In something that passes for a chorus, de la Rocha seems to evoke a kinship with the folk or protest songwriters of old, “This is the new sound/ just like the old sound./ Just like the noose wound/ over new ground.”  Interesting because, of course, the actual sound is very different but the tenor seems the same.  And the “noose wound/ over new ground”?  We might be a different country now than we were then, says de la Rocha, but they’re still lynching us.

But the real marvel comes at the end (please, I implore you, if you haven’t heard this song before, listen until the end), when de la Rocha lays the point of the song out for us, and the point is this:if you keep us poor and out of work, you can put us in jail and control us, which of course comes down to the folks in power using fear to control us.  Here is how de la Rocha lays that argument out:

Ain’t it funny how the factory doors close
round the time that the school doors close?
Round the time that the doors of the jail cells
open up to
greet you like the reaper?
Ain’t its funny how the factory doors close
round the time that the school doors close?
Round the time that a
hundred thousand jail cells
open up to greet you like the reaper?

And then (after saying a few times “This is no oasis!”, which is a sweet one-off line in itself) he hits us with this hum-dinger:  quietly, he repeats a few times “Just like ashes in the fall.”  This is certainly one of the great metaphors in rock lyric history.  Like the rest of the song, it is not easy.  It requires some processing.  What would it mean if you saw ashes drifting past you in the fall, or if you had some hot ashes in your backyard next to a pile of leaves? How does this image system inform the meaning of Rage’s song?

I used to get disappointed that, musically, Rage trails off after their big build-up during the “reaper” lyrics and gets quiet for the “Ashes” lyrics.  But they don’t just want to give us a music release. But they’re not just making music for our pleasure; they want us to hear and ponder this metaphor.

Here is the song, with the lyrics embedded in the video.

2 Responses to “My 22nd Favorite Song of All-Time”

  1. Kyle Sundgren Says:

    Brilliantly written and analyzed. I owe so much to Rage. We could have used them during the Bush years. I wish they would have kept going because “The Battle Of Los Angeles” started to show a new direction for the band that could only have gotten better.

    • sethdellinger Says:

      Yeah when “Battle” came out, I don’t think I was smart enough to appreciate it. I didn’t like it for years. Now I’m pretty sure it’s their best album.

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