Thomas Johnson is more of a ham and swiss guy.
I’m ageless, but I’m out of time / I’m thoughtless, but I’ve got a lot on my mind
L.A. Salami is a man lateral to his time. He’s a troubadour strolling, guitar strapped, weaving through teems of the marginalized and privileged, the incensed majority and bougie remainder, chronicling systemic grievances and the astonishing apathy with which they are received. He’s acutely aware of the ravages of society, the depth we’ve dug ourselves, and yet with the almost gleeful indifference of his reportage he’s consigned himself to an enviable low-stakes position outside our reactionary mob. He’s too peppy to be jaded though still too invested to be apathetic.
His real name is Lookman-Adekunle Salami, and his peripatetic youth as a Nigerian-Muslim Brit was spilt between his biological mother and the foster parents that took him in around 60 days young. His swagger is a bohemian cool that comes from closets of vintage formalwear and days spent trying to satiate a existential appetite. His gravity is free-flowing, a product of a decades-long identity crisis and the solace of condemned libraries. It wasn’t until he was 21 that a friend gifted him his first guitar and a medium to translate his conjurations. He has a voice like a crisp whistle.
Lookman coins his oeuvre ‘post-modern blues.’ At intervals it drifts somewhere near bluegrass and folk, country, punk, and maybe even rap at its wordiest. But for all the genre-fluidity, The City Of Bootmakers is first and foremost a playground for his songwriting. Salami’s lyricism is deceivingly easy to access despite his jaw-dropping diction. He at times wears his influences on his sleeve, but never in a way that defines him. He credits himself as having spent large parts of his youth writing poetry and translating that to music in his mind.
He owes as much to Dostoevsky and Nieztche as he does Dylan and Mitchell. His songs are written from a point of removal, a step beyond the jurisdiction of tangible consequence where all auxiliaries are peeled away such that all that remains is a skeletal system of logic. There’s no advice or bias, and little choice. There’s fast food ideology. There’s a wavering confidence in your nation and, like it or not, a part of your identity. Alienation and detachment and an ocean of anxieties inherited in dystopia. There’s dead-eyed facts, and a pragmatic brink. And so it makes sense the prophetic and oft-frightening City of Bootmakers is staggering in its scope. It’s a philosophical bent less concerned with panoramic answers, but in making sure there’s no questions left to ask.
We’re all willing to pay if the price is sane, but the free-to-buy landlords up and raised the stakes / To a height we just can’t make
The record opens with “Sunrise (Intro),” where a choir of untucked shirts spill into the street with arms linked, marching sloppily into a new day after hours of funeral drinking. There are no answers in an empty keg. The gentle way it fades in, with Salami rising above the pub session, acts aptly as the album’s brightest and lone moment of levity. Each song contains multitudes, notions, theories, and narratives stacked upon each other like an encyclopedic novel. But the intro unfolds like a simple elegy, a lament for a civilization in palliative care. “Generation L(ost)” follows like the obituary. It’s not a rallying point or a celebration of a half-decent run, but it’s the closest thing the record has to an anthem.
“Terrorism! (The Isis Crisis)” is the first of the record’s two most pointed condemnations. Salami explores conditions that bred the titular radical sect, and reiterates the terror as a by-product of the game. Who’s at fault, an ancient book or nationalist punditry? As he rollicks along, Salami traces the crisis from the disillusionment and force-fed propaganda to the consequences crushed alive by crumbling infrastructure.
While continuing the topic of border security, it’s on “Brick Lane” that Salami’s precursors are most evident. On Bootmakers’ most freewheeling cut, Salami echoes The Voice of Protest, but draped in paisley. It follows Salami on a semi-biographical uprooting to Berlin where the pain is another currency exchanged for cultural relevancy, dealing with the isolation and bigotry all the while. The same sneer peak-Bob Dylan wore on every inflected stanza Salami echoes in his cockney, so much so that you could mistake it for something left on Blonde On Blonde’s cutting room floor. A struggle for asylum in a time of xenophobia, “Brick Lane” outlines a futile attempt to alter your history to redirect your future.
When this headless monster purrs and no one’s breathing / I’ll tell you why I feel like leaving
Salami often wrestles with the inevitability of gatekeepers. The nightmarish context of his tragic victims is influenced by the unseen forces of capitalist ideology, ruthless imperialism, appropriation, and deportation. It’s resignation to the erosion of existence, actuality settling around you unconcerned with fairness, ambition or basic humanity.
“I’ll Tell You Why,” a series of closed-circuit narratives, is the album’s existential jewel. The first verse recounts a failed booty call doomed by a cocktail of abandonment and paranoia. Within some of these songs are devastating couplets, or admonitions that are so beautifully woven that the you’re eased into their fatalist perspective. This is not one of those songs. The second and third verse follow a best and worst-case scenario, respectively, for victims of a refugee crisis. The former reflects on the luxuries lost when fleeing a country, namely tailored clothing and the lives of family. The third verse is even harder to swallow: “On the shoreline lay an empty shell, what was a boy his body quelled/ He ran from hell for help but got told he ain’t got the right papers.”
“England Is Unwell” is the second of those plain-spoken protest songs. Salami uses his native country as the milieu for his ennui as he was raised to believe it means honor and generosity, but it could just as easily be the the home of the brave, or a true North strong and free, or a shortlist of developed-others. Underneath the pomp, the silk flags and jet streams, the sports-stadiums like cathedrals and messiahs in bespoke vestments, he dissects the concept of a country for what it is: a predetermined expanse of land, filled with people who will pay to play. A home and hell, a plot of grass and private cell.
And you can’t run away from yourself, so there’s nowhere you can go / You’re better off alone
The City Of Bootmakers at no point feels like a collection of pandering lessons. It’s vast and sweeping, but never finds the conclusion for which it pines. It’s an exhaustive but friendly confessional, the type of conversation born from an hour of the nightly news and a 12-pack of Budweiser. You get the sense that Lookman is trying to process it all the while, stumbling for meaning at your side.
He seems in the same boat as the rest of us; world-weary, disenchanted, prematurely cynical. Burdened by an outgoing generation with a mess of unsolvable problems, doomed to failure by the linked preconceptions that we’re a) screwing every pooch, and b) too lazy to rectify anything. It’s like we’ve been dropped into a prophesy in motion, the repercussion of a curse we put on ourselves when it was decided a soul can be exchanged for goods and services. It’s hard to look forward, to be optimistic about the future.
So maybe our salvation, in all its poetic irony, is the strength of our pessimism. Because what’s scarier, Salami asks: Apathy or Inevitability? They’re cyclical and interchangeable conclusions. The ’00s have redefined absurdity because no fiction can capture the batshitness of day to day life. Being young in the aughts means being dropped with no context into a situation you are demanded to make sense of. It’s Kafka-esque, or would at least be if we weren’t watching the metamorphosis in real time. Ideals fade away, doubts get bolder. Lookman’s strategy is an equation of science and spirituality, that makes up in certainty what it lacks in comfort; “It won’t take you long to realize / That it won’t be much to die if you feel alive.”
The preacher’s remind you that the end is coming / But the rent day’s coming, so the end can wait
Each line, every pun, sarcastic aside, or satirical caricature can be received as a lesson and as a warning. We’re all thinkers, paragons of individuality and humanism, proof that change occurs on the ground according to the levels of civil disobedience until, that is, you report to a bespoke harlequin. After that, you’re again blind to karma’s eye. Our morals and politics are warped through the myopic lens of celebrity and bureaucracy. Our values are muddied by reactionary act-first, think-later bandwagons. We’re snowflakes in the age of glass.
Answering all the questions Salami raises would be impossible. Simply keeping track of them would be an exercise in masochism; whose decisions are being made for you? If this is wonderful, then what’s un-wonderful? Who are you if not a product of your environment?
The best satire holds a funhouse mirror to your faults, warping them into grotesqueries and blowing them to ridiculous proportions demanding you to do and be better. It’s constructive, if sharp, criticism. And even in the most accurately depraved roast, there’s room for hope. By “What Is This?” it’s hard to say whether Salami’s a jester, emissary, or harbinger. As the outro swells into a Greek-chorus, Salami finally cracks, bent under the weight of what he just spent an hour off-handedly theorizing. It snaps in the middle, exploding like electroshock therapy. As it evens itself out, it begins to bring the whole City full-circle. Its closing minute briefly mirrors the ephemeral optimism and sunshine of “Sunrise (Intro)” before being drowned out by silence, fading into oblivion, history.
This climax, in the moments of Salami’s stoicism, we finally see a buckle: “Accosted day, elusive waver, but I don’t know what to make of the rest of them / Half a question, with many answers, but I don’t know what to say.” But tucked into the crack-up that follows, a reinvigorated Salami muses a loftier sentiment that seems more fitting to close out this tiresome analysis: You may be the intermediary for the light life beyond your eyes, and the out of sorts that seems endorsed by a footless sky: scorched flesh, repressed and forced to be remorseless, curiosity, hunger, lust and all the other unseen forces. If you’re going by the sight, that just makes you a light-giver. A pearl in spite of the feeling that you might wither…
At that point, the tracking overlaps and it’s a little tough to discern what Salami’s mumbling. He’s coming in from every direction, drowning himself out. Finally, the commotion settles and, as Salami’s La-La-La’s hits his falsetto’s ceiling, a final ramble weaves its way out of The City Of Bootmakers’ dying seconds:
It’s as real as any sun and deep as any night. Accosted day, elusive waver. Oh, Things can change.