“History’s not made by presidents or popes / or kings or queens or generals or CIA kingpins running dope,” Tom Morello sings on “Black Spartacus,” the opening track of World Wide Rebel Songs, his fourth album under the name The Nightwatchman. Who, then, is history made by? Your guess is as good as his. The song’s lyrics, like its music, never dip into anything resembling substance or depth. Instead, Morello the ersatz folkie is content to eject a mismatched jumble of glib platitudes and threadbare slogans, up to and including “Let freedom ring!” And that’s as good as Rebel Songs gets.
There’s always been something calculated about The Nightwatchman, especially when Morello began explaining that the project was the antidote to his other post-Rage Against The Machine act, the apolitical Audioslave. As a folksinger, he undeniably blows: There’s simply nothing appealing or compelling about his forced, tuneless, featureless vocals, and without a strong frontman like Zack De La Rocha or Chris Cornell, flaccid attempts at rocking out like “It Begins Tonight” render Rebel Songs even weaker than if he’d stuck strictly to folk.
“God Help Us All” is the disc’s most insipid example of Morello’s would-be Woody Guthrie-isms; confusing nursery-rhyme drowsiness and asthmatic harmonica with poignant intimacy, the song sounds about as authentic and passionate as a school assignment. As does Morello himself.