There is a post-mortem on 2020, a “Bridge Out Ahead” sign for 2021 and a riff that wags its finger at those of us unable or unwilling to come to grips with either.
Danny Louis, multi-instrumentalist with Gov’t Mule, ignites a blaze with his guitar playing. And his horn playing delivers a subtle scene-setter that reminds us how triumph awaits. Commanding authority with her emphatic, cautionary and unrelenting vocals is Machan Taylor, who has performed with Sting, Pink Floyd and Foreigner.
Together, this husband-and-wife musical team from New York’s Hudson Valley, performing as Gratus Corde, steamroll us all with their new single, “Burn Down Babylon.” This epic, sweeping, more than seven minute world-music-meets-rock-meets-rock-opera endeavor pleads with us to take a long hard look at ourselves, our excesses, our division, our failures and the distractions that keep us from embracing the ability to save ourselves from ourselves.
Gratus Corde translates to “grateful heart. And to express their gratitude, Louis and Taylor are donating 50% of the proceeds from downloads of “Burn Down Babylon” to Feeding America and the UN World Food Programme. The song is available for download on iTunes, Spotify and Amazon Music.
The riff that anchors this song teases the refrain in the nursery rhyme, “Ring-Around the Rosie,” which is quite fitting for the times we live in because of the childhood recitation’s origins in the midst of a pandemic centuries ago. That reference is complemented by footage in the video and the lyrics to “Burn Down Babylon” also nod to the “Humpty Dumpty” nursery rhyme, which has its origins in field battle during war.
And how about the name for this musical undertaking? Louis said that, contrary to focusing on the way in which the pandemic has negatively affected music and the arts, the “gratitude” expressed in “Gratus Corde” reflects how the couple remains grateful for all that they have during these uncertain times.
Taylor and Louis in their new song take sharp aim at politics, politicians, egos, idolatry, greed, environmental degradation and the ignorance around which all of these things can revolve. But while they push their listeners to the edge, they never abandon you. These musicians wrap their arms around us with stunning video footage of the finer things in life, from mother nature to human nature.
According to ancient.eu, “The city owes its fame (or infamy) to the many references the Bible makes to it; all of which are unfavourable.”
“…In the Book of Genesis, chapter 11, Babylon is featured in the story of The Tower of Babel and the Hebrews claimed the city was named for the confusion which ensued after God caused the people to begin speaking in different languages so they would not be able to complete their great tower to the heavens (the Hebrew word bavel means ‘confusion’),” reads ancient.eu.
The Bible’s tale of Babylon burns with the turmoil that engulfed this ancient city. “Burn Down Babylon” offers a similar perspective on the times we live in. But the song also illustrates how the coronavirus pandemic, political turmoil, financial crisis and uncertainty generated by all three throughout 2020 and so far in 2021 can at the same time inspire artistic expression with a dire sense of urgency.
The immediacy with which Taylor and Louis deliver “Burn Down Babylon,” the manner in which they fuse a range of musical styles and build on the song with a video assembled with many moving parts also shows how artists and musicians can make sense of a crisis and offer resolution while public officials stumble and stagger.
The video was filmed at Hutton Brickyards in Kingston, New York, where bricks over decades were crafted for New York City and used to build the Empire State Building and Yankee Stadium. Louis and Taylor chose Hutton Brickyards, where Bob Dylan performed in 2017 and which is now home to a sprawling resort, at the suggestion of the Woodstock, New York-based Hudson Valley Film Commission.
Underscoring it all is a searing sense of humanity that allows us to take a big step back and gain perspective on the world as it unravels around us. But at the same time, Taylor and Louis push forward and work toward an emboldened greater good.
“The lyric, ‘Let’s light the torch of love,’ that lyric is the deepest one to unpack,” Louis said. “Burning down Babylon is not an incitement to grab a physical flame. The last two lines of the chorus are, ‘Let’s light the torch of love/And burn down Babylon.’ The whole thing is to look at what lighting the torch of love means to you and to the planet, and in so doing we realize that the structures that we have in place right now are not necessarily from the love that we’re capable of and the compassion and the collective awareness and mindfulness that we’re all capable of.
“It always comes down to love. It always comes down to tuning into that non-verbal awareness of what’s right and what’s not right and what’s compassionate and what’s not compassionate. And if you start to steer your ship based on the compass pointing at those north stars, then policy becomes an expression of that, and the policies that do come into place are inclusive and with an idea that humanity is on a very small planet, we’re all in this together, if one of us gets sick, we can all get sick.”
Taylor described “Burn Down Babylon” as a global wake up call.
“The pandemic created this pressure cooker situation for everyone,” she said. “We have been rendered helpless by a situation that, if we as human beings don’t take this as a wake-up call, as a time to really think about our values, what’s important in life, how we are going to survive on this planet together, how we are going to work together, how we are going to take care of where we live, for the long haul, for future generations. If this doesn’t make people wake up then I don’t know what can or will.”
“Burn Down Babylon” marks the latest chapter for these two musicians, who have toured the world with numerous high profile acts.
A founding member of The Cars, Louis outside of Gov’t Mule has performed with Gregg Allman, Levon Helm, Joe Cocker, UB40 and Cheap Trick, among many others. He played all the instruments on “Burn Down Babylon,” including drums and percussion; bass guitar; electric and acoustic guitars; cavaquinho; synthesizers and keyboards; trumpet; and trombone. Louis also sang backing vocals and was responsible for the orchestral programming.
In addition to performing with Sting, Pink Floyd and Foreigner, Taylor has performed with Pat Benatar, George Benson, Aretha Franklin, Billy Joel and James Taylor. In 2016, she received a master’s degree in music from New York University. She is currently an adjunct instructor of vocal technique at NYU’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. And Taylor teaches contemporary vocal technique, performance and songwriting at the New School in Manhattan. On “Burn Down Babylon,” she sang lead vocals and played percussion.
But for all of the couple’s many accomplishments on a global level, the inspiration for this new song can be traced to their backyard.
That’s where Louis not too long ago was relaxing on a hammock. Ever the music maker regardless of where he finds himself, he reached behind his head and began plucking the ropes that kept the hammock suspended on a stand. The riff he ended up plucking evoked “Ring Around the Rosie;” it became the seed for “Burn Down Babylon;” and he expanded on it during recording sessions in his home studio.
“In the course of my daily exploration I came up with this model of a vibe,” Louis said. “I took it a little bit further and then it just sounded like this would be a really cool opportunity for Machan and I to hang out and work on something. So I kicked it over to her and she crushed it and sent it back to me and I did a little bit more.”
The collaboration picked up steam. And, Louis said of the songwriting process, “We just dove in. It was relatively quick.”
The whole endeavor was unlikely as Louis is typically on the road with Gov’t Mule for more than six months of the year and Taylor is often based in New York City where she teaches. But as with just about everyone else, the restrictions on public gatherings triggered by the coronavirus pandemic kept the couple at home. And they helped set the stage for “Burn Down Babylon.”