St. Paul, Minn. — Test-tube-generated superhumans. Genocidal maniacs. An apocalyptic war that engulfs the world. As subjects for songs on the Honeydogs new CD, 10,000 years, they're light years away from Adam Levy's more grounded songwriting world.
The creative spark for the songs came from Levy's 15-year daytime career as a social worker. For the last five he's worked for an agency in St. Paul called Hired. Recently, he's taken on a managerial role helping dislocated workers re-envision their careers. But he started out counseling at-risk youth and juvenile offenders on how to get a job. It was that experience that began to almost subconsciously seep into his songwriting.
Levy had a rule about not using work as grist for the songwriting mill. He felt it was disrespectful and exploitative. But this time, as the songs formed on the page, many inspired by a turn of phrase he heard the kids utter, he decided to break the rule.
"I realized the intentions of what I was doing, that I was actually using them for a purpose that kind of celebrates the struggles that a lot of these folks had gone through," he says. "Then I thought, 'You know, there isn't anything wrong with doing this, in fact it's a good thing as long as I don't use anyone's name.'"
Levy heard tragic stories from the teens he worked with. One boy watched his aunt shoot his uncle for stealing her eight-ball of crack. Another was arrested for bringing a sack of guns to school and selling them, then planting a bomb in front of someone's locker.
"Some things that you hear are so horrific that you're so overwelmed by what you're hearing that someone could actually live through that," he says. "I think the song "Poor Little Sugar" has a few anecdotes from several different kids of things that I've heard."
"In that song I'm really trying to show how that environment is so powerful in influencing those kids behavior," he says, "and I think that's often overlooked by a lot of people."
"10,000 Years" is a concept album, with a bleak worldview. The songs are loosely tied together by what Levy describes as an impressionistic narrative. A genetically perfect boy is bred in a test tube. A crazy woman steals him from the hospital nursery and raises him in desperate poverty. He becomes a thug on the streets, until a near death experience awakens him to his own morality. He goes off to fight in a war against a genocidal terrorist who exploits ethnic conflicts around the world.
The boy returns a hero. Only then does he learn of his superhuman genetic makeup. In cinematic terms you might say it's "Boys in the Hood" meets "The Matrix" with allusions to post cold war international politics, Jesus and the Holocaust. "10,000 years" tells two distinct stories. One is a gritty street tale. The other is more in the realm of science fiction. Levy decided to merge the two.
"The reason that I married the two parts of this story was because I think that a lot of these kids don't see the connection between what they're going through and between histories of other people," he says. "They sometimes feel that their victimhood is so exclusive and is so powerful that they can't imagine that anyone could have seen anything as bad as they've seen."
Concept albums are rare these days. Music critics, such as Chris Riemenschneider of the Star Tribune, tend to greet them by rolling their eyes.
"I mean you hear the words 'concept album' and I don't know, I personally immediately cringe at the idea," he says.
But after listening to "10,000 years" just once, Riemenschneider says he was capitvated, drawn in by the beauty and diversity of the music. Levy says he tried to craft musically accessible songs which could stand on their own individually, and Riemenschneider says he succeeded.
"A lot of times the concept is more important than the music and I don't think that's the case here," he says.
In fact, Riemenschneider says the new CD is Levy's masterpiece, even for a musician who's proven he knows how to write songs.
"They always showed kind of the Elvis Costello kind of irony and wit about them but this brought Adam I think to a whole other level as a songwriter and just an idealist I guess," he says.
In the liner notes to "10,000 years", Levy dedicates the CD to the memory of Senator Paul Wellstone. But he says it's also a tribute to the hard luck kids he encountered as a social worker.
"I would love it if they were able to hear this music and see if nothing else just how much an effect they've had on this one individual," he says. "How powerful their life stories and overcoming of unbelievable circumstances. So I guess in my heart of hearts I guess I feel I'm trying to do something for somebody else and hope that these kids can hear this music."
Levy is actually working on a film version of "10,000" years with Twin Cities video producer Rick Fuller. He describes it as a feature length music video. He'll screen a segment of the film this Friday night in Minneapolis, when the Honeydogs take the stage at First Avenue.