Austin-based indie pop musician Mobley tours more than 200 days a year, and when he's on the road, the police often pull him over for driving while black. Last year, he says, he was stopped seven times in seven states, all over the country. Five times he was forced to get out of the car. In one instance, three border patrol cars boxed him in as he drove, so he couldn't turn or even stop, until they finally decided they'd screwed with him enough and let him pull over. "Each of the times I was asked about warrants," Mobley tells me by phone. "I was treated incredulously when I answered that I didn't have a criminal record or had never been arrested. The typical harassment."
Mobley's new project, Fresh Lies, Vol. 1, is about the emotional toll of this typical harassment. He says that he doesn't think of the work as an album, but rather as an ongoing song cycle. It includes new songs, re-recordings of tracks from Mobley's 2012 EP Young Adult Fiction, and tracks from his 2017 EP Some Other Country. The lyrics to each composition discuss Mobley's relationship with the United States, couched in the form of a love song. It's a theme he says he will continue exploring for the foreseeable future, and he's marketing it in a novel way: Anyone who buys Fresh Lies on vinyl will receive digital copies of every song in the series that Mobley releases for the rest of his career.
Mobley says that he initially intended Fresh Lies to be a single album. But as he composed the songs, he realized that the theme was too rich to abandon after just one release. "The creative stricture of discussing racism through a love song helps me be less heavy-handed than I might otherwise be," he says. "It's a good way to enforce nuance."
In particular, Mobley explains, love songs force him to acknowledge his affection for the U.S. Racism hurts in part because it's a rejection. "Virtually everyone I've talked to who faces discrimination—they either now love, or once did love, this country," he says. Many white people seem to believe that black people and people of color want to be offended, or that victims of racism enjoy highlighting discrimination and expressing resentments. "But the very last thing I want to do is be offended," Mobley says. "The very last thing I want to experience is discrimination or racism. I actually would really like to love this country in an uncomplicated way."
When Mobley thinks about his grandmother, or his friends, many of whom are immigrants, "Well, then I really love that country," he says. "But then if I think of America as the people with the loudest voices, I don't have very much affection for that place at all."
The song "Tell Me," and its video, released last year, illustrate the ambivalence of Fresh Lies, as well as its sadness. "In that particular song, the speaker's imploring the country to run away with him. And he's asking her what he needs to be to make that happen," Mobley says. The music is achingly exuberant, in the best tradition of pop love songs. "I'll be patient/I'll be steady/I'll be waiting/Are you ready?" Mobley sings, before lifting up a wordless moan of hope and longing.
The video shows a young white woman happily dancing to Mobley's song in her comfortable suburban home—a cheerful scene of people bonding over music. But then she looks out the window and sees a man played by Mobley standing on the curb with a baseball bat. She calls the cops, and soon, the man is being thrown face-down on the pavement in front of his wife and son, who had been preparing to go with him to a baseball game. Meanwhile the deeply catchy tune crescendos into ecstasy. "Tell me where you want me to be," Mobley sings. And America seems to answer that we want you to be on our headphones, maybe, but not anywhere else.
Since 2016, many artists have released albums or songs addressing America's bleak (re)turn toward intolerance, from superstar Janelle Monáe declaring, "We don't need another ruler, all my friends are kings," to indie artist be steadwell singing the inspiring chorus, "Let's go home and have gay sex / We'll do it for the president / The sons of the Confederates / Oh they wish they had love like this."
Fresh Lies is certainly part of that resistance. But as an ongoing project, which started before and will hopefully outlive the current president, it also suggests that Mobley thinks Trumpism is going to be around long after the current occupant leaves the White House. If you're planning on a song cycle about racism to continue over the next several decades, that's a sign that you think songs about racism are going to be relevant for a while. Maybe even relevant 'til "the end of time! Whoo oooo whoo ooo whoo ooo!" as Mobley sings with manic acidity on the song "Torch."
"I'm not the world's most optimistic person, so I do tend to think that the problems will be around," Mobley says. "But honestly, even if some wonderful miracle happens and they disappear, the history will still be there. And my experiences heretofore will still be there." Even if America can someday manage to love the people whom it's traumatized, the trauma won't vanish.
"When I wake up I feel like an island / Another day, another lie," Mobley sings in his light, high tenor on "Native Sun," the final track on Volume 1:
When I wake up I feel like a dying man
And all my life's a length of rope
Every inch of me frays and I'm knotted
From the strain of years spent holding onto hope.
By promising the song cycle will continue, Mobley looks ahead to more strain and more years. There's no easy way to love a country that won't love you back.