The bitter wind whips across the plains through national road, the main street of Richmond, IN like it owns the place. There are more churches than there are schools ’round here. There’s a dog food factory on the edge of town that blankets the place with the odor of kibble every few weeks. There are at least five different pawnshops in this little town. Living in the Midwest is not easy, not fast, and, in a lot of way and places, not comforting. Kid Dakota gets this. If you’ve ever considered visiting Minnesota, Iowa, or my sometimes-residence of Indiana, let The West is the Future be your warning.
If the bleak album artwork was not enough to chase any chases of hopefulness and joy out of your system, the songs themselves will do the trick. Opener “Pilgrim” starts out with a jazzy drumbeat before a riff as big as a semi speeding down the highway appears, and singer/guitarist Darren Jackson begins lashing out with cutting and sarcastic lines like “The west in the future / It’s bright and metallic / The west is a fever / It’s hot and hypnotic.” Here he plays the role of a politician, a tourist advertisement, or a trend watcher, painting the west in terms of the Marlboro Man. The rest of the album shows exactly how phony this sentiment is. Starting with track two, reality sets in. Musically and lyrically this is a plodding, resentful, inaccessible album, as cold as the frost on the plan and as bleak an anonymous stretch of Interstate 70.
Jackson leads the listener on a guided tour throughout the Midwest, from a small town in South Dakota filled with “good people doing bad things” (“Homesteader”). In “Ivan,” the album’s other frenzied barnburner, we get to see the dilapidated house of a dilapidated resident, who has so little faith that he “might be able to accept the God that made this world,” but “can’t accept the world that this God made.” “Ten Thousand Lakes,” takes us to a Minnesota rehab clinic, where Jackson spent time prior to this album. Here, the vast emptiness, frozen lakes, and vicious winds outside perfectly reflect the emptiness inside the narrator’s soul as he laments, “The thought of ten thousand lakes makes me feel weaker.” This track has a plucked guitar line and drum parts as beautiful and delicate as its themes, offering the only glimmer of hope on the album when Jackson sings “but I’m optimistic.” Just as quickly though, the line morphs into “I’m off to Mystic,” a land of Indian casinos and cheap motels. In the Neil Youngish “Starlight Motel,” we visit towns where life revolves around asking a girl to dance at a local bar’s band-night, (while a delightfully shitty country band sample hums in the song’s backdrop) followed by checking into a cheap hotel and attempting some stab at romance. Interestingly enough, “Winterkill” recalls early Sunny Day Real Estate and offers the albums most upbeat melody, contrasted with lyrics of suffocating air and cold sunshine.
The scariest thing about the Midwest is also this album’s biggest flaw- it’s nearly impossible to escape. You try to drive but states pile up after states. There are two nearly tracks on here, “Homesteader” and “2001,” due to their unnervingly long length and lack of justification for their own attempted grandiosity. In both cases, the ambience that precedes the songs is ineffective and grating. But just as with the place itself, the portrait must be consumed as a whole if one is going to venture at all. Never upbeat, not even for a note or two, and not containing one ounce of hope. You can see the sarcasm has faded from Jackson’s eyes as he repeats “the west is the future” in “Atomic Pilgrim,” an acoustic reprise of the album’s first track. By the time he is singing this, the line is not bitter, but fearful. In The West is the Future’s eyes, there is no hope for this doomed place- the best we can hope for is that its resignation spreads no further.