Maintaining Consciousness with Emperor X

I have a food service job in Buckhead, Atlanta’s wealthiest neighborhood. The district gleams like a city in an advertisement, all glass high-rises dotted with corporate logos and towering complexes of luxury apartments and broad avenues thrumming with new sports cars and SUVs. Bankers and executives hustle by on their way to and from restaurants and coffee shops, where they plot how next to exploit their neediest clients and lowest employees; the occasional valet or waiter scurries around them, head down, working to ease them from the strain of plotting. The people who live here will never have to worry about affording healthcare, and most will never attend a public school. Yoga studios and Whole Foods herald safety rather than displacement for them; the abject poverty on the city’s south side is safely imprisoned behind the barriers that line crumbling highways and car windows kept immaculate by Uber’s misled drivers. A bronze statue of Paul Coverdell, a republican senator who died in office after playing a crucial role in getting George W. Bush get elected (and who no doubt would have devoted all of his political capital to the Iraq invasion had he made it to 2001), presides over a park just beyond the train station. And even in an urban center so renowned for its thriving black culture and supposed commitment to diversity, Buckhead is overwhelmingly, oppressively white; on Sundays, businessmen stream out of labyrinthine protestant churches in seersucker suits like caricatures of aggrieved plantationers.

Musicians have been railing against decadent wastelands like this for decades, and our modern age does not lack for its correctives. ANOHNI shines a searing, unflinching light on the destruction wrought by people like the residents of Buckhead, while Run the Jewels issue cathartic calls to prepare for their demise. When I’m overwhelmed by the sheer scale of their power and the seeming inescapability of the vice grip they exert on the rest of us, I sometimes reach for INTERNET CLUB’s hypnotic, woozy OG-vaporwave and bask in the homogenous hyperreal terror of it all. In its droning repetition of consumerist signifiers, that artist’s work recalls the trope from midcentury protest music where artists would grind lists of brand names, products, and creature comforts into meaninglessness as a way of expressing their contempt for capitalism, technology, and modernity, which they often conflated into the monolith of the straight world.

Chad Matheny, a Florida-via-Berlin DIY musician who goes by Emperor X, makes political music somewhere near the folk-rock tradition of those 20th-century songwriters, but something I’ve found a renewed appreciation for in his music as his latest album Oversleepers International has overtaken my Buckhead walking rotation is his rejection of such conflations. Technological saturation and advancing civilization are not inherent evils in his work, and are as often effective against his villains as they are as tools of destruction. His political activism is studious, specific, and philosophically-minded; every world leader, economic principle, and organization namechecked in his songs is identified for a pointed reason. In “The 2013th Noel” (from Jetzt Christmas, a holiday album that I unabashedly listen to year round) he swaps out the “King of Israel” line from the original carol to announce a laundry list of instigators and perpetuators of atrocity: “born is new manager of the Kaesong industrial complex…the prince of Mozambique…the CEO of Conagra.” The references weave together into a cohesive, urgent image of a world in turmoil, an image which he then punctuates with an equally subversive and chilling final stanza: “Born is the child of God/She’s poor like us/Hide her quick, or they’ll kill her.”

Emperor X in Berlin. Photo by Lena Mikhaylova/Kate Seabrook for Tiny Engines, who released Oversleepers International.

Matheny excels at economized lyrical gutpunches like this; they are scattered liberally throughout Oversleepers, often suspended in weightless, open-air breathpoints in his lightning-paced arrangements. In “Schopenhauer In Berlin”, a 21st-century transplant of the 19th century philosopher — or possibly 21st century natives standing in for him by embracing his ur-pessimist worldview — completes each chorus with a professorial “open question”, lingering expectantly on a third that the unsympathetic universe never resolves, as if an undergrad unwilling to engage in class discussion. The narrator of the title track, jaded by unjust war, physical disability, and Kafkaesque border crossing protocol, begins and ends their tale with the bitter declaration “if you think you know what love is, you don’t.”

“€30,000” uses its title in one of the simplest and darkest late-capitalist tragedies: “I owe €30,000 to the hospital”. In seven words, it encompasses all the absurdity of carrying crippling debt to a facility meant to stand you upright. The line is subsequently underscored by a list of other expenses run up in the wake of the medical dues: $37 for a round trip to an offshore bank account, 100 million cells obliterated by the procedure (the song is inspired by Matheny’s experience battling testicular cancer, and near the midpoint of the song a mock-doo-wop chorus taunts him with names of chemotherapy medicines from their itemized place on his bill) and then 7 hours at an HRA, a grim reminder that capitalism makes even time itself into a commodity. The dizzying frustration is so thick that the narrator’s intermittent invocations of bloodshed — first suicidal terrorism in Syria (“explosive belts hung from balloons means no more debt”), then an irony-laden trip to an arms dealer where the only barrier between them and a lethal rampage is the store owner trying to convince them that going postal won’t make them feel any better — become fully understandable, perhaps even something like sympathetic.

Violence and nihilistic anguish like this erupt all throughout Oversleepers International. The saddest and/or most terrifying cases come with a side of denial — the economists in the speed-ska freakout “Wasted On the Senate Floor” who abuse inhalants and MDMA to cope with acquiescing to political pressure, or the victims in the terrifyingly serene “Brown Recluse”, a song-length metaphor for complacency in the face of fascism’s global resurgence — but the clear-eyed are far from spared. “Riot for Descendant Command” sees protestors alternately rejoicing in aggressive protest tactics and police retaliation and musing on death and impermanence. The second verse of “Schopenhauer In Berlin” hinges on the stark, arresting image of “Drano from an open container”. “God Save Coastal Dorset” (doubtlessly titled in full awareness that irreversible sea ice loss due to manmade global warming has effectively rendered coastal Dorset unsaveable) is a snapshot of despair in the moment the Brexit vote was tallied, complete with an alarming howl of “no” at the moment of truth. There’s a temptation to read all this as dystopian, but as William Gibson (whose dense, jargon-rich sci-fi prose Matheny’s writing evokes) often contends, “dystopia” conceptually demands ignoring that horrors beyond imagination already exist in the present.

And anyhow, Matheny’s vision of the world is not at all without hope. His ramshackle, folk-adjacent songs are without fail built around yearning, sky-scraping chord progressions, built for OP-1-backed guitar workouts in European alleys and countless white-knuckle yelpalongs on exhaustive tours. He has always taken time to imagine a better future for us (Jetzt Christmas’ pointedly multicultural spacebound Bossa Nova “Lua De Natal”) or at least people fighting for it in the face of extreme adversity (the beleaguered cyberpunk revolutionaries of “Erica Western Geiger Counter” from 2011’s Western Teleport), and his caricatures of the problematic and powerful are rarely without laughter at the pathos and absurdity of their antics (The Orlando Sentinel’s bemused “At a Rave with Nicolas Sarkozy”). Here, we get “Riot for Descendant Command”’s activists taking comfort in the fact that their victories outlive them, “€30,000”’s narrator conceding that even uncaring HRA clerks “deserve to sleep, to be warm, and be well”, and Matheny himself imploring us at the end of “Schopenhauer in Berlin”: “If the universal will blanks your mind/if the population catalyst declines,/please remember: Schopenhauer in Berlin was not unkind./He had eyes just like ours.”

It’s not a call to action, really, as much as a reassurance, an act of empathy. Arguably, that’s what Emperor X has always specialized in. Oversleepers International isn’t so much protest music as it is music for protestors, music that soaks up the grief and tumult of navigating a neoliberal world, conscious of its atrocities and foiled by its complicity, and then jettisons them in cathartic bursts of frenzied upstrumming and whooping melodies. The album portrays staying alert, informed, and active in our time as a grueling and even unfulfilling task, but as an inherently noble and necessary one, too. In its specificity and directness, it prompts you to do more research, to carry on the dirty and detailed work of being a good citizen; in its personable vigor and emotional candor, it offers a firm backhand to anyone who’s tried to tell you that to do such work is to stoke pointless outrage, who’s advised you to “not care so much about politics and live a little”, as if politics and all its tangible, measurable impact on our lives is somehow separate from “the real world”, as if living itself did not constitute a deeply political act for vast swaths of the global population. Matheny’s clear eyes and sharp words show us the pressure and strain of doing this work while also offering the warmth and empathy of a fellow traveller, helping you to navigate and illuminate the abyss.