The lead single off Texas songwriter Ryan Culwell’s new album The Last American deftly sums up where we are as a society in 2018: a nation of detached, tech-addicted Tweeters desperate to find some kind of flesh-and-blood connection. For Culwell, that connection can even be alien contact; he opens the lyrics with “6EQ UJ5,” a reference to a famous radio signal heard from space in 1977. Like the astronomer who discovered the seemingly specific message, Culwell is always listening on “Can You Hear Me” — to extraterrestrial theories, Eighties anthem-rock and Springsteen lyrics (the opening verse asks “Is anybody out there alive,” nodding to Bruce’s refrain of “Is there anybody alive out there?” in “Radio Nowhere”). Culwell is also tuned in to CB radio, peppering “Can You Hear Me” with big-rig jargon like “Evel Knievel at my backdoor” (a motorcycle cop following him) and wishing listeners “3’s and 8’s” (good luck).
But it’s what he sneaks in between the Convoy convo and dizzying delay effects that cements the song as a must-hear — a dash of subtle political commentary that makes it clear that Culwell’s antennae extend well past his native Perryton, Texas, and current homebase of Nashville. “I can’t breathe,” he repeats over and over, referencing Eric Garner, an African-American victim of police brutality whose final words became a protest slogan. “My only regret is that I run out of air after singing ‘I can’t breathe’ 10 times while Eric Garner found the strength to say it 11 times,” he told Rolling Stone earlier this year. “You can’t love your neighbor as yourself if you’re not even listening to him.”