Between the Womb and the Tomb
alcolm Palmer is almost on to something with Between the Womb and the Tomb. He delivers spoken-word poetry over contemporary full-band folk music with an insistence that matches his political concerns and his personal hurt at the state of his surroundings. He's not the first person to rap over acoustic music, but he does a fine job of crafting more traditional-sounding songs as his base. Unfortunately, his single-mindedness, while admirable, doesn't hold up well over the course of an album.
Palmer has a huge battle to fight―Dre hasn't sent him, but he's still here to take the world on. He recognizes his country (the U.S.) as corrupt, his city as a-religiously fallen, and society as misdirected and unconcerned. At his finest, he picks out snapshots of memory to represent larger ills. On "Nothing Ever Changes" he sings, "Every time I see my woman slappin' that wrist / I take my pen out of my pocket it and I put it in my fist / Do I have to go on or do you all get the gist / ... / And some people pretend that she doesn't exist." It's a stark moment about society's lack of concern for junkies (reflected further in lyrics about urban decay and improper police and judges). He also acknowledges that need for reporting to expose conditions, and, in asking if he has to go on, Palmer points out that he must―he can't leave urgent issues up to listener inference.
Oddly enough, the album's second track undercuts his political activism. While the chorus to "Preferred Form" posits music as a place to "give a voice to your frustration," Palmer explains his highest love in the last verse: "Money kills and music saves ... I have nothing to say and nothing to prove / Music is the one thing that I truly crave." With this statement, he affirms that his political statements exist to serve his music, emptying out his form into order to valorize its skeletal construction and execution. The song works fine on its own, but it comes across as a silly ode to music in the midst of an angry and ambitious album, and, worse, it calls into question Palmer's musical activism.
It would be easier to push this song aside if its theme didn't recur, but it does. Tracks like "Music and Words" and "Awkward Situation" (about the lyric) hint at a metacritical analysis examining the importance and relevance of music in social change, but they stop at that level. Too often Palmer leaves his messages at the fact that he, or his music, is fighting; at one level, such phrases are performative, but the speech doesn't fully enact its claim to condition. Even on an album with as many words as this one has, too many syllables are given over to a solipsistic explanation of battle without ever firing a shot outwards.
The shame is that when Palmer turns outward, he's effective. Coming across like a more militant and more intense Michael Franti, he usually skips sermonizing ("I ain't no priest") in favor of journalistic presentation and general outrage. He brings some of the same strengths as Chuck D (this could be the white liberal CNN), but also the same weaknesses, such as nonspecific anger without precise points or directives. Because it isn't music's job to be fully formed social commentary (conversation-starter is enough), this method could be acceptable, but when coupled with Palmer's fascination with self-description, his political banner sags with each track.
On "The Sermon," Palmer sings, "I'll seek and serve a purpose between the womb and the tomb," and I give Palmer full credit for his approach to music and the expression of his wounded conscience. However, right now he's stuck on seeking that purpose; in taking on capital-I Injustice, he's been unable to look at anything more precise than crack is bad, kids turn pimp, etc. As Palmer refines his writing, maybe he'll come to look with as a close an eye as an angered mind. If he holds onto his musical vision as he focuses his political one, he might find that thing he's almost onto.