Indiana-born, everywhere-based singer-songwriter Peter Oren possesses a remarkable singing voice, low and deep and richly textured: as solid as a glacier, as big as a mountain. Similar in its baritone gravel to Bill Callahan, a hero of his, it rumbles in your conscience, a righteous sound that marks him as an artist for our tumultuous times, when sanity seems absent from popular discussions. His voice is ideally suited to confront a topic as large and as ominous as the Anthropocene Age.
That term is relatively new, reportedly coined in the 1960s but popularized only in the new century to designate a new epoch in the earth’s history, when man has exerted a permanent—and, many would argue, an incredibly deleterious—change in the environment. Sea levels are rising, plants and animals facing mass extinctions; it may be humanity’s final epoch, which makes it a massive and daunting subject for a lone singer-songwriter to address, let alone a young musician making his second full-length record. But Oren has both the singing voice and the songwriting voice to put it all into perspective. The songs on Anthropocene are direct and poetic, outraged and measured, taking in the entire fucked-up world from his fixed point of view.
Art and activism are inseparable on these ten songs, each bolstering the other. “There’s no separating art from reality,” says Oren. “The reality is that our politics are guided by our emotions, and music has the capacity to demonstrate those emotions, at least on an individual level. And if you can talk to someone on an individual level, you might be able to have a more useful conversation than if you’re talking to a roomful of people.”
After releasing his full-length debut in 2016, the eloquently spare Living By the Light, full of road songs and wanderers’ laments, he began playing more live shows, just him and his guitar on an empty stage. The set-up was not simply financially expedient but musically effective, allowing him to address listeners more directly, whether he’s singing to a scattering of curious onlookers or a full house of fans. Early encouragement came by way of Joe Pug, another singer-songwriter unafraid to confront big issues in his rootsy songs.
He would not be the last. Soon Oren attracted the attention of Ken Coomer, the drummer for Wilco and a producer in Nashville. Together, the duo assembled a backing band featuring some of the city’s finest session musicians, including keyboard player Michael Webb (John Fogerty), singer Maureen Murphy (Zac Brown Band), and guitarists Sam Wilson (Sons of Bill) and Laur Jaomets (Sturgill Simpson). On Anthropocene they provide stately backing for Oren’s songs, with drips of pedal steel and quivers of strings subtly reinforcing his observations about the state of the world. “Throw Down” bristles with energy and resolve, penned for “the people on the far, far left,” Oren says, “the anarchists and the rioters. There’s not often a voice that’s trying to understand those people or defend those positions.”
Anthropocene might be merely didactic and oppressive—a giant bummer of an album—if those rallying cries weren’t tempered with something like hope, particularly on the sunny “New Gardens.” He penned the tune as a teenager, but as an adult felt the message still resonated. The song celebrates labor, individual and collective, as the most effective tool for last change, and that vision of communal responsibility that makes the album such a rousing call to arms.
“Music is a sympathetic process, where people who feel the same can experience it together. I don’t know if my songs would change somebody’s mind, but they might help people feel a little bit less alone in their opinions and might encourage them to get involved in some way. Nobody’s going to riot when the album hits the street, but maybe it can in some small way help turn the tables.”