Only three lyricists make me stop and pore over every word they write - Suzanne Vega, J Church's Lance Hahn, and Modern Life Is War's Jeffrey Eaton. I just finished Richard Russo's Empire Falls, an incisive, compassionate meditation on the type of small town life that Eaton portrays so brilliantly. Russo's town is in New England, while Eaton's Marshalltown is in Iowa, but they both convey one of the cruxes of American small town life: getting out.

Given my recent review of Midnight in America, I thought I'd revisit Modern Life Is War's previous album, Witness (Deathwish, Inc., 2005). Physically, it's a beaut. Jake Bannon's Zipatone silvers and blacks are lovely, and Kurt Ballou wraps the record in meaty, electric tones. The band dropped the hardcore punk-isms that hindered its previous album, My Love. My Way., and became Neil Young in a Hope Conspiracy hoodie - seemingly simple, but with rolling sock hop rhythms and masterful tension and release.

Spiritually, the record is for the ages. The songs set Edward Hopper to sound - stark, sympathetic, observant. I hold the lyrics close like a tattered bible; the line "Where the smoke from hell's exhaust pipe lingers above the cheap rent in the dark night" still kills me. If the world were just, Green Day would tour in a van, Eaton would be recognized as a literate visionary, and "D.E.A.D.R.A.M.O.N.E.S." would be the voice of a generation. For me, Witness will always be more punk than The Clash and The Sex Pistols put together.

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