Wielding his guitar like a genre-vaporizing blowtorch, Tom Morello remains one of rock’s most distinctive instrumentalists: His iconoclastic virtuosity brings a defining character to all his projects, from the revolutionary rap-rock of Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave’s post-grunge to the live-band hip-hop of Street Sweeper Social Club. Morello’s solo persona, the Nightwatchman, stands apart from his other efforts, though -- placing him front and center as the singer, in addition to using folk as the musical bedrock in lieu of the innovative metallic crunch for which he’s famed. However, while “World Wide Rebel Songs -- his third full-length under the Nightwatchman moniker -- reflects Morello’s expected radical social consciousness in its lyrics, it also evocatively expands on his sonic fingerprint.
Where previous Nightwatchman releases primarily featured Morello as an acoustic troubadour, his latest proffers more group interplay, at times recalling aspects of his other projects. “It Begins Tonight” bisects shamelessly heavy riffing with Bo Diddley beats, while “Union Town” hybridizes Morello’s trademark turntablist-influenced shredding with a chorus ready-made for protest marches; “Facing Mount Kenya,” meanwhile, balances personal introspection and political insight with sparse, atmospheric trip-hop. Surprisingly, the most appealing element here proves to be Morello’s voice -- a weary, Leonard Cohen-esque rasp that makes all the sloganeering seem oddly soothing. That human element is what makes “World Wide Rebel Songs” compelling, and ultimately cathartic: What Morello lacks in subtlety, he makes up for in visceral feeling.