Yes, Richard Shindell's new album does include a wry takedown of Ayn Rand called "Atlas Choking."
And yes, his best-known songs do include poignant first-person character studies, from the Sarajevo refugee in "You Stay Here" to the death row inmate in "Ascent."
But no, he insists, he's not a political songwriter, nor a particularly dark one.
"I've got this reputation for being deeply heavy, but to tell you the truth, I don't think of myself that way at all," says the much-acclaimed singer-songwriter. "And, you know, it's not like I'm writing a goddam political treatise when I'm making a record. I'm just trying to write pop songs. I've got no political agenda when I'm writing a particular song; I'm just trying to tell a story."
There are, he admits, exceptions, including the aforementioned "Atlas Choking." One of the standout tracks on Shindell's newly released Careless album, it's an amiable-sounding folk-pop number that opens with the notoriously ultra-capitalist Ayn Rand greeting the actor Yul Brynner in an unspecified afterlife: "Dead Ayn Rand took Yul by the hand," sings Shindell, "and said, 'How does it feel to be free?'"
For those who may not follow pop culture and politics, Brynner was the head-shaven star of Westworld and The King and I, as well as a heavy smoker who died from lung cancer. Rand, meanwhile, was one of the tobacco industry's most avid advocates.
"I like to think of fire held in a man's hand," the Objectivist philosopher breathlessly wrote in her magnum opus Atlas Shrugged. "Fire, a dangerous force, tamed at his fingertips."
"I went on a jag researching Objectivism and their philosophy," explains Shindell. "I find it fascinating that Ayn Rand holds up smoking as some sort of symbol of rational interest and freedom, when you're dealing with an addictive substance. So the song is really just kind of a fleshing out of that particular contradiction in that philosophy. Which I find to be just a horrible little philosophy."
Like the similarly droll and poetic Richard Thompson (who was a guest artist on his South of Delia album), Shindell is that rare breed of solo artist whose expressive singing, songwriting, and guitar playing can cause you to momentarily forget there isn't a band with him onstage. The New York Times called him "one of the folk circuit's most quietly lucid songwriters, with a compassionate intelligence that gleams through his songs."
It's the kind of praise the New York-born musician has earned time and again since recording his debut album, Sparrow's Point, in 1992. He's gotten similar accolades for his collaborative projects, including the trio Cry Cry Cry with Lucy Kaplansky and Dar Williams, his current Pine Hill Project, and a collaboration with the Argentine band Puente Celeste.
These days, Shindell lives in Buenos Aires, where his wife has family. "Compared to the United States right now," he says, "Argentina appears to be a paragon of political rationality."
Shindell spent three years recording Careless, augmenting his singer-songwriterly sound with everything from bowed electric guitar to bass, drums, violin and keyboards. He also relies less heavily on storytelling, although he hasn't entirely abandoned putting sympathetic characters in difficult situations.
"All Wide Open" finds a father cautiously welcoming his drug-addicted daughter home. On the mournful "Stray Cow Blues," the narrator is lost at night among barbed wire, mud and thickets. But apart from the song's title, and lyrical clues like "nothing to do but hang my head and low," there's nothing to indicate that the creature is anything but human.
"The cow could be a metaphor or just a stand-in for a human," Shindell acknowledges. "And that's the way the record ends as well, with a human standing out under an open night sky, also wondering what the hell is going on."
So has songwriting helped Shindell find any insights into what actually is going on?
"Not really, no," he says. "It doesn't answer any questions for me, except the question of what am I good at and why was I put here. But, you know, it's what I do. It's not therapy. It's not philosophy. It's just an activity that gives my life purpose and meaning. Does that make sense?"