Substituting anger for despair


The Empire's New Clothes

CD performed by Phil Monsour

13 tracks, $26

CD available from

An epigram introduces each of the song lyrics printed in the liner notes to Phil Monsour's new album, The Empire's New Clothes.

An epigram could have been drawn from Antonio Gramsci to introduce the album as a whole: "The only justifiable optimism is that which accompanies acts to change existing reality."

Monsour's songs are his acts to change the reality of war and dispossession, especially in his family's Middle East homeland.

As with the launch of his 2002 CD, Smart bombs, Monsour launched this album at a fundraising dinner for the Brisbane Palestinian community; specifically for the campaign to end the siege of Gaza, on May 24 at Ahimsa House, West End.

The empire's new clothes is an album of mostly new material with some reworked favorites (such as "My spirit") from Monsour's now-lengthy musical career. Monsour's musical vocabulary is drawn, roughly, from "independent" music of the 1980s. A mix of guitar-based rock, played with natural inventiveness, is well suited to his themes.

The rich production values that were evident in Smart bombs are raised higher on this CD, an achievement aided by an impressive list of Brisbane musicians.

Recent years have posed a challenge for writers: as imperialism advances, there would seem to be little to sing about. The difficulty is expressed in a song on this album as a problem of keeping hope alive when there is reason to fear "what tomorrow will bring".

Yet Monsour has never ceased to give voice to the people with "inconvenient" personal histories of injustice. (Listen, for example, to "Hoola Darweesh's homework" and "We will go home".) In an era of rampant imperial power, he has written songs for people whose resistance has taken the form of bitter persistence rather than confident progress.

At times, the album substitutes anger for despair. The anti-war songs, such as the title track with its description of oil as "the shiny black slime to lubricate a war machine", bring to mind Bob Dylan's fierce attitude in "Masters of war". There is also anger, as in the song "One step", about the personality-distorting effects of life in the heart of capitalist society: "Measure your success by what you can buy … Never see the real cost only the price that you pay."

This album is both an enjoyable performance by a mid-career artist and another act by that performer in the work to change a war-torn world.