The temptation with the singer and musician Tracy Bonham is always to reduce her work to a snappy explanation. In 1996, her smash hit “Mother, Mother” was girl-power rock in the Morissette mode, her sophomore release Down Here was a change-of-pace bid for critical acclaim, and her last full-length, 2005’s Blink the Brightest, established her as a slow-working artist who keeps getting better.
The pat explanation of Bonham’s new Masts of Manhatta goes like this: Bonham now splits her New York life between urban Brooklyn and rural Woodstock, and this recording reflects that divide: more folk textures and fiddle playing mix with an indie attitude and hip songwriting.
All of this is true, as far as it goes. But the critical view of Bonham has almost always been too pat. Bonham, from the beginning and increasingly over time, is a riveting, complicated maker of pop music. She is the kind of songwriter who uses pop conventions intelligently, then also dashes them. Her lyrics may strain now and again, but neither does she ever write a dumby throw-away tune.
Masts of Manhatta is another rich Tracy Bonham album, a generous array of song structures, hooks, clever lyrics, strong bass lines, delicious textures, effective arrangements, and strong vocal (and fiddle) performances. Like all her work, Masts is a grower, a collection that deepens on repeated listenings and is very nearly the equal of Bonham’s best work.
The song that most clearly demonstrates the city/country split of Masts is “We Moved Our City to the Country”, with its loping country groove and its jokey lyrics that mock city-folk who move to the country (“I hear a young sparrow—oh, it’s your ringtone”). But the song is better than these gags, as it shifts from its lyric portion to a country hoedown and then suddenly into a slow and mournful groove for vocal “oohs”, electric piano, and richly reverbed guitar. What first seemed a joke ends in ominous beauty and layers of birds and barking dogs.
Elsewhere, Bonham is less schizophrenic and even more effective. “When You Laugh, The World Laughs With You” builds from a pair of plaintive violin parts into a memorable string arrangement then into a compelling pop song that boasts rich lyric images (“Your wedding ring’s at the bottom of a swimming hole”) and a soaring chorus melody. It’s a love song, but one that is rife with little bits of excellence, from the use of Fender Rhodes lines in unison with acoustic guitar to a great percussion part. The story of “In the Moonlight” is a charmingly-told autobiographical story about growing up as a teenager, and its chorus hook (“We mooed in the moonlight, mooed in the moonlight…”) bores into you ear irreversibly.
“Devil’s Got Your Boyfriend” opens the album with a combination of klezmer-sounding fiddle, hard-smacked drums, riveting vocal harmonies, and a great set of story lyrics. “Josephine” uses tuba and fiddle to create a thumping-strong groove, but then it is interrupted by lush bridge sustained only by vocal harmonies and rich strings. “Big Red Heart” opens with a funky bass part and Latin hand-percussion, then it moves to sharp handclaps and eerie unison singing. Each of these tunes bears a fifth or a tenth listen, the lyrics telling stories that the music can support.
The focused sound of Masts of Manhatta is deceptive. Bonham is backed on every track by guitarist Smokey Hormel (Beck, Tom Waits, Johnny Cash) and his trio, giving the whole proceeding a rootsy groove that differs significantly from the studio-rich sound of Blink the Brightest. But closer listening reveals a wealth of arrangement details that belie any notion that Masts is some kind of simple “folk” album. The slide guitar on “You’re My Is-ness” and the cello on “Reciprocal Feelings” are just two examples. In the corners of nearly every song there are harmonized vocal “bup"s or tinkly little spots of acoustic piano.
It’s worth saying a word about Bonham’s singing voice. It can dig deep on some tracks, yet it also reaches up for beautiful soprano lines when it needs to. She sings rich harmony, but when soloing she sometimes creates quirky sounds that veer toward personality or even ugliness. It is the furthest cry from the processed pop sounds on today’s radio, but it doesn’t lean toward a country twang or a folk earnestness either. Bonham uses her voice as a highly flexible tool in putting across her songs—no singing diva’s tactic and just another reason to admire her.
Tracy Bonham has, apparently, little interest in making her career an easy one to follow. She’s not a real rocker or an indie-pop darling or a pop-classical crossover artist or a mature purveyor of acoustic Americana. Yet she is a bit of each of these things, and more. She writes story-songs like Fountains of Wayne, and she crafts melodies and song-forms worthy of Brian Wilson.
That kind of range and eclecticism is unlikely to make Masts of Manhatta (a phrase from a Walt Whitman poem, repurposed as a lyric here) a hit. But I’m sure Bonham knows that her hit days are gone. Ahead of her is, we should all hope, a lifetime of making music. My suggestion: support her now so that we can all keep digging the work of one of the culture’s most intriguing voices.