by Weston Cutter
Of the several pretty incredible albums that’ve already been released this year (top-of-head list of some incredible ones: Buckner’s Our Blood, Bon Iver’s Bon Iver, Wilco’s The Whole Love, Sarah Jaffe’s The Way Sound Leaves a Room, Blind Pilot’s We Are the Tide), the one I’m having the hardest time shaking is A. A. Bondy’s Believers. I also find it compellingly hard to talk about the album, just because the maybe common or easy buzzwords one’d perhaps use about it—or not even buzzwords, just connotations, typical mentions—don’t catch the thick weirdness of this album. Maybe that’s the best way to do the album, honestly: the two words I’d be tempted to use in describing Believers are “folk” or folkish and “Americana,” but those terms are pale misses on what this album fully contains. So here follows my takedown of the words I’m tempted to use.
Folk-ish. This album—like Bondy’s other stuff—is ultimately made of ingredients we’d recognize from elsewhere: guitar, piano, reverbed bass (worth noting that most everything’s electric on this, whereas on his earlier albums one could smell the spruce of the acoustics). Drums on these albums always seem like if they were to become a person they’d be a very nice, very relaxed dude. But, so: quiet, mostly. There’s a way these things are built (Buckner and Bon Iver, for what it’s worth, also have folk-ish tendencies and also both stretch the term to new shapes and potentials).
Here’s the thing though: Believers‘s first track, “The Heart is Waiting,” sounds like a hundred storms decided to come together and stuff themselves all into the same cloud, and then as if that cloud became an electric guitar. I don’t know how to talk well about this. The song doesn’t bang to a start and doesn’t snap to a shut, it rumbles in and out like the sound of the ocean as one drives past, and so because of that, at least for/to me, the whole album sounds like something that’s already out there, and that hitting play’s merely a matter of opening a door. And what’s out there?
The reviews I’ve read’ve mentioned dread. I suppose there’s that. What’s weird about Believers is that it’s so loaded with a thick music that the listener’s damn near bound to make associations: there’s heavy organ throughout, so it sounds sort of creepy or Neil Young-ish at points. There’s a plaintive stridency in Bondy’s voice—I can’t tell who I hear hints of. Ultimately, the album sounds like a soundtrack, though, is the thing, and it actually I think sounds like the perfect soundtrack to Drive, the recent Ryan Gossling flick.
Here’s the thing: that film’s got this 80′s synth-rock thing going on. It works well for the movie. I still have the sndtrk in my head at least every-other-day. But Believers would be the weirder, darker, more sparse version, and in that version there’d be no question about if the scorpion jacket was ridiculous or not. I’m not doing a good job with this. Onward.
Americana. This is weird. On “Drmz,” which Bondy admitted was titled that way just because he likes fucking with spellings, the opening’s so similar to a Velvet Underground song it’s almost funny—it sounds like it could easily lead to “Some Kinda Love” or “Jesus,” easy. “Rte. 28/Believers” could be an outtake from The River-era Springsteen. What I’m trying to say is you can see and hear grandpaternity in these tracks, almost instantly, and that lineage is what we’ve all now come to agree is “Americana” or something. Some essential river that flows through certain music. Plus just look at that cover! The fuzz, the solitude, the black-and-white.
But the truth is, those songs start one way but headfake fast. “The Twist” starts like the dirgiest 1982 Neil Young track, and when Bondy says “I hold the blade with the midnight arm,” you’re welcome to think the darkest thoughts you’re able to. Here’s the chorus
In ritual positions
I kneel before this love
Sometimes in benediction
a mouth to sing the flood
far away from the world.
You’re, again, welcome to get that as darkly as you’d like. I’ll submit that though the song may not make overt narrative sense, it works terribly well—he sings “I’ll hold the mirror for the ghost,” and the rightness of that image or idea totally, totally works.
Bondy’s been making good albums for awhile now (longer, even: Verbena, anyone?), but this, Believers, is something magic and different, darker by double and more lasting and unsolvable, than anything he’s yet tried. I haven’t been this hooked on an album in I don’t want to consider how long. Do yourself a favor. Get this now.