"Do you want a man of steel?" sang Peter Case in the opening track of his eponymous solo debut 25 years ago. "Or do you want a man that's real?"
There are few singer-songwriters more "real" than Case, at least if by real one means "difficult to pigeonhole" and "unconcerned with being so." While much of the music on his dozen albums is clearly rooted in the blues, he began his career in the late 1970s at the crossroads of power pop and New Wave in the bands the Nerves and the Plimsouls. And at 57 he still occasionally performs their songs.
"They're super into the Nerves in Spain," Case told WORLD shortly after returning from a month-long foreign tour that found him in Madrid at the height of its recent headline-making street protests. "We were playing 50 yards from the ground zero of that protest. So it was packed with the people."
Politics plays a recurring role on Case's latest album, The Case Files (Alive). Although its 12 tracks are culled from nearly a quarter century's worth of previously unreleased recordings, songs such as "Kokomo Prayer Vigil" (in which Case rips the stuffing out of a fundamentalist-preacher straw man) and "Ballad of the Minimum Wage" (ditto Walmart employees and shoppers) sound as fresh as the perennially controversial sociopolitical circumstances that they address.
And "Let's Turn This Thing Around," which Case actually wrote during the George W. Bush-John Kerry election cycle of 2004, could pass for a Barack Obama campaign song.
Obviously, as Case himself is quick to point out, he is "not a Right-winger." Neither, he insists, is he a "theologian." But he has been known to write, and to write passionately, about a subject that in contemporary American politics often has right-wing and theological connotations: Jesus.
There is, for instance, "I Still Belong to Jesus," one of several songs that Case contributed to Robert Randolph & the Family Band's 2010 album We Walk This Road. And The Case Files includes two songs that not only mention Jesus but that also do so with the exact same quatrain: "Democracy is our ideal. Without the truth, it's all unreal. / Jesus Christ, he said it plain, / you can't serve God on a golden chain."
"That line might even be in another song too," Case admits, chuckling. He also admits being unsure of whether his individualistic take on the faith that he first embraced in 1984 would stand him in good stead with the average Christian these days.
But he remembers his conversion well. "I had become convinced of my own powerlessness," he says. "And what other life has ever had as much power as Jesus'?"
Perhaps the most surprising Jesus song at the moment is "Christmas for the Free," a song made all the more surprising because it appears on a new album by a group that last hit the charts over four decades ago with "Time of the Season": the Zombies.
Breathe Out, Breathe In (Red House) finds the founding members Colin Blunstone and Rod Argent taking the Zombies' trademark ethereal pop and deftly incorporating elements of the music for which they went on to become known after the group broke up in 1968 (Argent with the group Argent and Blunstone as an occasional vocalist for the Alan Parsons Project).
The most gorgeous passage, however, occurs in "Let It Go," when Argent incorporates a Bach-based organ melody not unlike the one on which another '60s band, Procol Harum, based "A Whiter Shade of Pale" and thereby links the Zombies to a long and noble chain.