In a song near the halfway point of “Bobby Fuller Died For Your Sins,” Chuck Prophet states what pretty much every pop fan has been thinking. The song states its proclamation succinctly in its title, “Bad Year for Rock and Roll.” It begins with a quick send-off to David Bowie and works outward. But Prophet isn’t out to eulogize, at least not in any overt way. Musically, the tune is all celebratory and joyous, starting with a sunny guitar lick that would have been right at home on Bob Dylan’s “Nashville Skyline” before blooming into a melodic stride of pure pop confection.
That kind of dichotomy runs throughout “Bobby Fuller Died For Your Sins.” Loss is outlined with rock ’n’ roll set up as a means of salvation. The title tune refers to the champion pop star who died mysteriously at age 23 in 1966. The music bounces along with a charge that recalls Fuller’s best-known hit, “I Fought the Law,” but there is no mistaking the turbulence beneath. “They say someone’s gonna have to pay for the price of love,” Prophet sings, even as the music’s anthemic feel roars along, creating a mood that is nostalgic, but darkly so.
Part of the song’s charm — and the album’s, for that matter — is Prophet’s ability to humanize mythic figures. Such is the unassuming impetus behind “Jesus Was A Social Drinker,” an altogether respectful parable (although some people won’t see it that way). “Jesus wasn’t Irish; just imagine if he was,” Prophet sings with sly, Tom Petty-like reserve over a leisurely, rolling groove. “He might have written poetry and verse and enjoyed a pint of Guinness every day for lunch.” Reflecting a more manufactured myth is “If I Was Connie Britton,” a saga in which the popular TV actress symbolizes a glamour-filled Nirvana (“If I was Connie Britton, I’d be forgiven for my sins. I’d never read a tabloid once. I’d wear turquoise to the gym”).
Sadly, rock ’n’ roll can’t reclaim everyone. “Bobby Fuller Died For You Sins” ends with perhaps the angriest song Prophet has committed to a recording. On “Alex Nieto,” he outlines the 2014 police shooting of an unarmed security officer on Prophet’s home turf of San Francisco. “Alex Nieto was a pacifist,” Prophet hollers in a turbocharged mantra over truly wicked guitar riffs, giving rise to a protest song of epic emotive scope.
It’s an unsettling coda to an album that enforces Prophet’s effortless feel for pop music’s power, fun and grace. Unfortunately, folks like Bobby Fuller and Alex Nieto inhabited a world that was never as forgiving the rock ’n’ roll that seeks to offer solace.