Some artistic achievements are so audacious that they belie criticism. Of Great and Mortal Men (43 Songs for 43 U.S. Presidencies), a three-album collection conceived by J. Matthew Gerken, Christian Kiefer and Jefferson Pitcher and performed by a host of artists, falls squarely into the category of unassailable artistic achievement. The three songwriters use the mode of indie-pop song to create a new epic in the tradition of John Brown’s Body or the U.S.A. trilogy.
After comparing a work to the great literary epics of the United States, it seems like scant praise to say that it’s also a compelling listening experience. Whereas Gerken, Pitcher and Kiefer could have been given a pass on a couple of weak tunes given the scope of the project, the songs on Of Great and Mortal Men give a unique portrait of each president yet fit together to form a whole: Of Great and Mortal Men plays more like an opera than a collection of forty-three pieces.
The song for Ronald Reagan, which features atmospheric instrumentation by Califone, offers a sympathetic depiction of his final days, thinking that his presidency was merely a “marvelous dream.” Bill Clinton receives similar treatment on “The Mighty Lion Will Not Roar Again,” which laments the unfulfilled potential of his presidency. Though most of these high points come with recent or well-known presidents, each man receives his moment. Ulysses S. Grant is given a prescient view of the United States in “Helicopters Above Oakland,” and James Madison laments the wrongs done to him on “Zinger.”
Of Great and Mortal Men is filled with these intimate and inventive glimpses of public figures, which indicate the amount of research that Gerken, Kiefer and Pitcher put in to write these songs. This collection is not only a work of historical interest during a year when the presidency will change hands, but it’s also one of true artistic merit that shows the significant talent of the songwriters and musicians involved.