Thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Minutes to Midnight’s new album “After 1989” is a daring biographical concept album that sets out to address the city’s tumultuous history head on.
With a dark and melancholic rock backdrop, the singer-songwriter uses multi-generational experience to explore themes of freedom, memory and personal growth, pieced together with immersive news coverage and a U-bahn journey from central Berlin to Sachsenhausen.
The first track “Skinny Kid” opens with some soft piano and a sombre Bowie-like baritone. The song begins with the narrator’s grandfather telling the young artist of his experiences surviving the holocaust. Eventually we hear the full scope of grunge instrumentation over a hard-hitting classic rock groove, the repetition of the title establishing an innocent perspective that we imagine will change over the course of the record.
Little Boy comes from a place of innocence which is cleverly complimented by a toy piano and some beautiful viola playing
The cleverly named “A Little Boy that Santa Claus Forgot on a B-29” documents the grandfather and his friend fleeing Berlin toward the end of the war, also providing a parallel narrative of the atomic bombs being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Again, “Little Boy” comes from a place of innocence which is cleverly complimented by a toy piano and some beautiful viola playing.
“The Logic” decries the decision to build the Berlin wall as being both “cynical” and “cyclical”, possibly a subtle reference to modern issues. Guitars range from twangy and sinister to aggressively distorted, giving this song more of an edge than the previous numbers. “13 Days” leans further into grunge territory, with instrumental tones and chords hinting at Soundgarden and Chris Cornell. Lyrically the song deals with the 13 days of the Cuban missile crisis, attacking attitudes toward nuclear arms at the time. A tastefully spacious rhythm section allows for an unrestrained operatic guitar solo, a particular musical highlight.
The hope is tangible in the line “this time we need to be seen”
“Unter Den Linden” covers John F. Kennedy’s well received “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in 1963. The hope is tangible in the line “this time we need to be seen” and the gentle, breezy chords underscore a more optimistic perspective. The hopeful message is offset by the next track “Love Field”, which covers the crowd that greeted the president in Dallas an hour before he was tragically assassinated. These songs also connect the story to the present, as it’s clear the narrator identifies with these crowds. “Requiem” jumps ahead in time to the assassination of Martin Luther King, another moment of lost hope that’s presented over a beautiful fretless bass melody. The atmospheric piece ends with a repetition of the words “compassion and love”, presented here as a way of processing pain during these shocking and upsetting events.
“The Day Before” is a heavily jazz influenced piece, with some of the most advanced and interesting playing on the record, particularly in the piano and saxophone parts. The last two tracks bring the album full circle, with the narrator’s trip to Berlin in 1991 serving as the final chapter in the odyssey. “Berlin 91” is a touching tribute to a former girlfriend – and friend – who accompanied him on the journey, and finally “Sachsenhausen” is a beautifully raw ballad based on a visit to the concentration camp that once imprisoned the narrator’s grandfather. According to the artist, this was the experience that personally clarified the album’s central theme of prison – be it a physical, social or personal prison. Having grown up with the cold war tension and inherited trauma, it’s clear that this was a life affirming event for the narrator and it serves as a satisfying conclusion to a deeply reflective album.
After 1989’s themes are timely and human, and effortlessly connect with a modern audience
Overall there’s a lot to chew on with this record. The direct and immersive narrative allows history to speak for itself without being preachy or forced. The artist gives us a unique perspective of an outsider who manages to observe a great deal of pain without being directly subjected to it. Its themes are timely and human, and effortlessly connect with a modern audience. “After 1989” is an immersive and interesting experiment in storytelling that will leave listeners meditating on its heavy themes. If you’re short on time I would recommend checking out the album opener – it’s very likely that you’ll want to hear the rest of the story.