Listening to “The Heart is Willing”, the ominous opening track of A.A. Bondy’s latest album Believers, one gets the impression that Bondy is the type of guy who spends his nights creeping around the outskirts of town in a battered ’85 Dodge Ram with a loaded six shooter and a bottle of Old Crow in his lap and the devil riding shotgun. With its pleading guitars, crackling percussion and horror movie organs, the song invites us to jump in the back of the truck for a journey into the very heart of darkness.
While it remains to be seen whether Bondy is actually the real life boogeyman he portrays himself to be here, he has certainly seen his share of hardship on the road to mid-level success. His late ‘90s outfit Verbena was supposed to be the next Nirvana (hell, they even got Dave Grohl to produce an album) but they wound up another long-forgotten major label casualty. After several years in the wilderness, Bondy reinvented himself as a folk singer, subsequently releasing two albums full of acoustic Americana that won him comparisons to other hard living troubadours like Ryan Adams and Justin Townes Earle.
Those comparisons should dry up as soon as the needle drops on Believers. According to a press release, these 10 songs were “conjured during and between dreams, in bare rooms, and on the late night streets of America”. Bondy, working with veteran producer Rob Schnapf, has crafted something that plays like the soundtrack to an ambiguous film noir where roses are murdered indiscriminately, horses run wild in the thunder, and there’s always a killer on the road. While it could very well be that Bondy is just experimenting with different moods and colors, the sense of dread that runs through these dream-inspired songs is almost tangible.
For this collection, Bondy completely eschews the acoustics in favor of lap steel and reverb drenched electric guitars. More often than not, he chooses to hide behind the music, preferring to sing in fractured, indecipherable sentences. We never learn exactly what is haunting Bondy but we know he can’t seem to outrun it. On the fearsome “Skull and Bones” we find Bondy sitting at a bus stop, muttering phrases like “I cannot be here today” to himself. A chorus of “Running home with a notion in your head” seems to suggest that Bondy knows that he needs to remain in the ether to avoid causing irreparable harm to himself and to others. The transfixing “Hiway/Fevers” waltzes from darkness into oblivion while the languid “Down in the Fire”, with its images of lonely sailors and prostitutes, recalls fellow doomsayer Mark Lanegan’s “One Hundred Days”.
Luckily, not all of these dreams are nightmares. On the bluesy “Surfer King”, the clouds clear up for long enough for Bondy to proclaim that there’s “No more evil now / No horror sound / No maniac song”. “The Twist”, with its gnarly arpeggios, is the closest the album comes to a straight-up rock song and “Drmz”, despite talk of wolves and haunted oceans, achieves an almost otherworldly beauty. It’s on the seven-minute “Rte. 28/Believers” that Bondy finally comes full circle. During the final act of the song, as the pace is slowed to a crawl, Bondy departs with the words “There can be no ending / Only silence”. He has followed his dreams down every dark corridor in search of answers that he knows he will never find. Where he goes now that he’s awake is up to him.
Believers is the type of album that demands to be digested as a whole, preferably on a chilly October evening with an adult beverage or two close by. This is a collection of hypnotizing, shape-shifting songs that, like our worst dreams, linger a lot longer than we expect them to.
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