Steven Keene puts an uncanny finger on the pulse of our troubled times with new single and video “Them And Us”

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Few artists these days have successfully tapped into that elusive formula of the human heart that is the recipe for truly timeless songwriting with the power to resonate across generations. Fewer still possess the voice and vision to write the songs that will later define their generations. Yet, New York folkie mainstay and seasoned singer-songwriter Steven Keene seems to have perfected that secret alchemical concoction with consistently powerful and timely songwriting over the last few decades. 

Now a measured and mature artist who often seems eerily plugged-in to our times, Keene very humbly possesses an uncanny gift for laying an eloquent lyrical finger on the panicked pulse of our societal discontent.  And this has never been more true than with his latest single “Them and Us” (out on Symphonic), a track that carries the poetic and political potency of Bob Dylan’s “The Hurricane” and calls attention to the unprecedented new era of racial injustice and unnecessary tribalism we now find ourselves living in. 

In an odd turn of synchronicity, Keene seems to have foretold our current political climate of divide-and-conquer, perpetuated by powerful corporate and governmental interests who have too much to gain by sowing discord around cultural divisions. In fact, he sent me the first rough version of “Them and Us” four weeks before Minneapolis police officers publicly murdered George Floyd in a blatant public display of institutionalized racism and the governmental monopoly on violence that both infects and defines our current national zeitgeist. 

“Them and Us” was already the right combination of simple and profound in its first emanation. Just Keene’s earnest voice and a piano, recorded on a cellphone; the song was already powerful and arguably his best compositional work to date. Lyrically, those first 6 verses addressed human conflict on a wider scale, encompassing everything from divisiveness around nationality, political affiliation, and religious denomination to unnecessary hate and tribalism based on race, sexual orientation, and gender differences. Keene’s ardent chorus asks the question: How wide’s the divide, between them & us?

But then Minneapolis happened …and that same gruesome footage that incited the world to action and arguably ushered in a whole new age of civil rights discourse touched Keene so deeply that it transformed the song mid-writing and inspired the track’s most powerful final verse, comprised of these words that I’m convinced will one day prove an immortal representation of our present reality:

Ol’ Jim Crow the hood and white robe

Forever blame, forever shame

Now a knee to the head…and a poor soul’s dead

Some things never change

From Selma to Montgomery

To the back of the bus

How wide’s the divide

Between them & us?

With that questioning, almost imploring chorus “How wide’s the divide, For them & us?” Keene seems to take the gnostic’s approach …suggesting that, ultimately,  the answer to that question lies within the heart of each individual. Rather than turning to the tv and the polarizing talking heads of the political binary for solutions …each and every one of us must look to ourselves. To engage in the essential inner-dialogue of our suffering collective psyche. Says Keene “’Them and Us’ is about each one of us asking ‘where does them and us show up in my life? Who do we see as different,  inferior?  Even the oppressed, even those who are discriminated against can discriminate against others. No one is pure, rarely is anyone innocent of bias….so ask yourself how wide is your divide?”

Will this circle be unbroken

From father to son?

To separate, divide & hate

Till we are one?

And if the answer is within each of us, then so too is the capacity for determination to bridge and heal that divide. The river’s wide and runs deep. It’s hard to cross…but Keene suggests that to cross it is a revolutionary act. A revolt against ignorance that has to take place one mind at a time…no need for saviors, experts, priests, or politicians; this world is ours to create.  And Keene believes it is a world that is, indeed, very possible. We have shared glimpses of this potential reality at key inspiring moments of history, when the trappings of race, religion, politics etc. were summarily transcended in ephemeral little bouts of collective enlightenment …like a divine spark in the words of “Abraham, Martin, and John.”  Keene sings:

Been to the mountaintop

The view is quite clear

The air up there is pure

To erase all fear

Legendary rock publicist and eccentric pop-anthropologist Howard Bloom once suggested that the rock musician is the modern-day secular shaman. The artist/shaman, steeped in spiritual interlude, is a seer who sees what comes and intercedes with those unseen realms on behalf of a community that is sick, afraid, angry, and suffering. Through his craft, he puts our collective fears, desires, and our most desperate hopes into a palatable context of art — when we are in crisis,  reduced to looking through a glass darkly, misted over and obscured. And music, especially that secret alchemy of the timeless, generation-defining song, is the rainbow bridging the chasm between the earthly and heavenly planes, between matter and spirit.

If that is so, then Keene is our present-day cultural divining rod, undeniably tuned-in and adept at articulating with eloquence our current society’s tiresome psychic ills. The guitar, the piano, and his notebook comprise his black mirror; that powerful divinatory and visionary tool revered for centuries for its ability to penetrate the veil between worlds…in this case, the ailing and divided world that is, and the promise of an inspired world that could be, somewhere beyond the divide between Them and Us.

“Them and Us” is Keene’s second hard-hitting and socially relevant single to drop so far this year after “Save Yourself,” which recently debuted on Americana Highways and cast a critical eye on the selfish side of human nature as the hysterical hoarding hordes descended during the early days of the COVID-19 scare. 

Both follow fast on the heels of his recent comeback EP It Is What It Is, just released in January following a steady stream of original singles dropping every month or so since last Fall. The consistent flow and range of the new material being churned out foreshadows the broad stylistic eclecticism and bold subject matter that can be expected on his upcoming album Them and Us, slated to be released later this year. It is also indicative of a deeply personal renaissance Keene has been undergoing as an artist. 

A true songwriter’s songwriter, Keene, has focused himself for most of his career on honing the craft of songwriting and collaboration with other musicians, more so than chasing record deals and fame. But after working for years in the industry as a well-respected musician and songwriter – collaborating with an impressive roster of musicians and achieving more than a few notable successes in the 90s and early 2000s – life and love-lost took Keene down a road of heavy heartache that put his songwriting on an extended hiatus. 

“I’ll tell you what happened,” reflects Keene. “I went through a lot of tragedy in my life. It took a while, seven years, for me to get over it. And then one day, like a switch,  I just was …and I started a new life for myself and put that ache in the past.”

True to his belief that the story is best left open to the listener’s interpretation, Keene doesn’t go into too much detail in the telling of it. But the clues and characters are littered throughout the flood of songs that followed the sudden breaking of a years-long writer’s block. No stranger to music’s strange ability to nullify the pain of loss, Keene harnessed the fermenting pain of love-lost to fuel and rejuvenate his career.

The songs on Keene’s upcoming album run the gamut from the political to the starkly anti-political, from lovesick ballads to whiskey-infused odes to the foggy darlings of one night stands. Keene gives nods to his primary influences, which range in genre and style from folk song-crafting icons like Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Tom Waits to the blues mavericks like Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and Elmore James, and further afield to include the likes of composer/pianist Henry Mancini, country iconoclast Hank Williams …and even Pink Floyd.

“I’m very lucky, at this stage in my life, that I’m writing and producing more songs than I ever have …at a faster rate. The bad news is the songs keep me up at night, and they haunt my dreams. And I’m constantly reaching for paper.”

Keene’s newly rising star is a sign that there are listeners out there who hunger for his straightforward style of empathy and connection. Rediscovered by industry veteran Jason Jordan just prior to ONErpm poaching the exec from a position as SVP of Republic Records, Keene has been in no hurry to sign to a major label or conform in his sound. When Jordan left Republic, sensing a seismic shift in the industry, one of his first moves as North America managing director of ONErpm was to sign Keene’ and release a series of singles. Now Keene has moved on to Symphonic for the upcoming release and Jordan is actively managing the artist.

All of the upcoming album’s tracks will be produced by Keene himself, and recorded and mixed by Joseph DeMaio just blocks from the Atlantic Ocean in Long Branch, New Jersey’s Shorefire Recording Studios, using the last analog Helios console ever built. Having found a classic analog sound and collaborative dynamic that works for him, Keene is keeping on the same roster of musicians for the new tracks, including Rich Scannella on drums, Joseph Chiarolanza on bass, Matt O’Ree on guitar, Joseph Napolitano on pedal steel, Arne Wendt on keys and Michele Weir, Layonne Holmes, and Jessie Wagner doing background vocals.

See the video here:

by Benji Michaels

What They’re Saying about Steven Keene
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