“Revolution,” the opener on Heartless Bastards’ 2021 A Beautiful Life, begins gently with an acoustic guitar moving back and forth between two simple chords. Frontwoman Erika Wennerstrom’s vocals drift in, unrushed and relaxed, similar to that calm-before-the-storm temperament Lou Reed evokes in the opening minutes of the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin.”
“Where you going, my friend?” Wennerstrom croons in her deep alto voice. “Have you forgotten when there was a time filled with hope instead of fear that’s in your heart?/ There was a time when life was simple and innocent to start. Do you remember? Do you remember?”
The light tingle gains more steam when Wennerstrom asks again, “Do you remember?” An abbreviated orchestra of strings and synth become audible, alongside the lone guitar, as her vocals jump an octave higher: “Constantly being advertised, your life commercialized and disguised, as happiness in pills and potions, fancy threads and cars in motion/ Hypnotized by gilded lies to line the pockets of so few/ While hungry politicians feed bullshit to the masses, to ensure their statuses and further divide the classes/ You were born with a voice so open up and speak your mind, raise consciousness and elevate how we all relate don’t hesitate. No need to be better or smarter than anybody else/ Leave judgment at the door for others and yourself.”
Wennerstrom takes the song into fourth gear: “The revolution is in your mind; the revolution is in your mind; the revolution is in your mind; the revolution is in your mind.” The repeated line is unleashed with urgency as if there’s no time to come up for air; there’s no time to take a breath.
Like Gil Scot Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and the Beatles’ “Revolution,” Heartless Bastards’ “Revolution” is timeless—and timely. Wennerstrom lists off several influences for the one song, including the old-school rock ‘n’ roll sound of Chuck Berry and the matter-of-fact/don’t-give-a-fuck delivery of Kurt Vile. The tune was released as a single in 2020, marking Heartless Bastards’ first new music since 2015’s Restless Ones—in 2018, Wennerstrom released a solo LP, Sweet Unknown.
A few days after the Supreme Court’s historic Roe vs. Wade reversal, Wennerstrom is still in shock.
“I’m still processing it all,” she says from her Austin home. “I’m a little afraid. When you have a court ruling on things that most Americans don’t support, there’s a real disconnect. I feel powerless right now, but hopefully, we will all be able to move forward. Ultimately, we can only control our perspective and attitude, and I think music is a medicine that helps.”
The ideals and the frustrations shared by many following the monumental SCOTUS decision are similar to the vexations that Wennerstrom feels fuel most of the songs on A Beautiful Life. As a single entity, the songs on the record work together and represent a profoundly personal journey towards inner peace and acceptance.
“It’s a message that others could use, and I think I find that writing has a positive impact,” Wennerstrom says. “The [album] is about raising consciousness and being aware of your strengths and impact—I also address the environment and hyper-commercialism.”
Stylistically, the music is just as varied as it is thematically. On the dreamy “The River,” driven by Andrew Bird on violin and Fared Shafinury on setar (not to be confused with sitar), Wennerstron’s vocals resonate with a tribal undertone—a cleansing of the soul. Meanwhile, “Photograph” jams with hints of the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo acid country rock.
In addition to the guest musicians, Wennerstrom put together a super tight band for the record, including guitarists Lauren Gurgiolo (Okkervil River) and David Pulkingham (Patty Griffin), drummer Greggory Clifford (White Denim), multi-instrumentalist Jesse Chandler (Mercury Rev), keyboardist Bo Koster (My Morning Jacket) and longtime Heartless Bastards bassist Jesse Ebaugh.
On the group’s world tour, which kicked off July 1 in Santa Fe, Wennerstrom is joined by several Heartless Bastards regulars: guitarist Jonas Wilson, bassist Sam Pankey, singer Beth Harris and multi-instrumentalist Doug McDiarmid.
The tour closes out in Bristol, England, on Dec. 7.
Wennerstrom isn’t sure if she’ll start working on a new record after the tour. It’s definitely not a matter of having enough material.
“I probably have a couple of albums worth of songs,” she says. “I always have tons of ideas. Just finishing ideas is the biggest challenge for me. Melodies will pop out when I’m walking down the street, not even when I’m trying to write. I think honing my message and figuring out how to articulate what I’m feeling is the big challenge. I didn’t really write during COVID. I had some ideas here and there, but I think I get inspired by being around people and living life. In isolation, it wasn’t the right time for me; I didn’t feel inspired because I didn’t have that interaction that I’m used to that makes me think differently.”
The last couple of lines in the closing minute of “Revolution” speak to Wennerstrom’s feelings on human interaction and offer sound advice regarding the recent Supreme Court ruling: “You were born with a voice, so open up and speak your mind, raise consciousness and elevate how we all relate don’t hesitate/ No need to be better or smarter than anybody else, leave judgment at the door for others and yourself.”
Heartless Bastards play Monday, July 11 at 8pm at Felton Music Hall, 6275 Highway 9, Felton. $29 plus fees. Laney Jones opens. feltonmusichall.com.