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Album Review

Recorded and released in the wake of the U2 blowup and its various consequences, Free isn't the band's direct response to that whole affair. That ended up on Fair Use, but Free in a general way debates questions of, indeed, free will and philosophy, not to mention patriotism, religion, and much more besides. As such, it's in many ways one of Negativland's most striking and all-encompassing efforts, though a bit of an underrated effort in the overall canon, buried amidst all the outside attention of the time. It's also in many ways one of the most song-oriented releases from the band, as such songs as the groaning late-night blues of "Cityman" and the honestly beautiful and shimmering acoustic guitar-led "Crumpled Farm" show. Other full-on collage efforts pepper the disc throughout, whether it's the bemused existentialism and questioning of what it means to be a U.S. citizen on "The Bottom Line" and the study of drunk driving on "We Are Driven." It all still bears the unmistakable touch of Negativland, to be sure, with recurrent samples and sudden jump cuts the defining touch of Free as much as anything. Compared to the overarching conceits of Helter Stupid, Free is a touch more fragmented but still pretty pointed. Songs like "The Gun and the Bible" and the amazing album closer, "Our National Anthem," take understandably jaundiced looks at the conflations of violence, nationalism, and belief that can all too often define what it means to be American. In the middle of the disc is a full-on slice of Negativland-styled hilarity with "Happy the Harmonica," an adaptation of a kid's record narrated by the Weatherman in his own inimitable style. Changes to the original story — with sound effects — are provided throughout, such as the entrance of a Pontiac Firebird Trans Am or a radio drama take on San Francisco-area fires.


Formed: 1979 in Berkeley, CA

Genre: Alternative

Years Active: '80s, '90s, '00s, '10s

Some will always say that practical jokers should expect retribution at some point. Others may note that within any joke there is some human truth. Still others will just want to enjoy the jokes as jokes and nothing more. Three differing statements, all valid truths when applied to one of America's most curious, clever, and inventive bands in the last 20 years of the 20th century and beyond, Negativland. Though named after a track by cult Krautrock band Neu!, who also inadvertently provided the moniker...
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Free, Negativland
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