It must be a good time to be Eric Bachmann. His old band Archers of Loaf, aside from getting the reissue treatment, reunited and performed a number of shows this year. This fall he put out his latest album as Crooked Fingers, another noteworthy release in his decade as a solo artist. On Breaks in the Armor, Bachmann performs nearly every part, with the exception of some vocals from Liz Durrett. He should be feeling pretty high right now, so it’s a bit surprising that the album’s so pessimistic. The lyrics have a consistently downward turning tone, but that might be just a bit of misdirection.
On “Bad Blood”, Bachmann visits a fortune teller and reports back: “She says you’ll probably get the cancer / Says you’ll surely die alone.” It’s not a chipper start to a song, but it’s indicative of the way things are going to go across the album. In this world, giving up is the only way to stay safe, and faking an illness only induces your demise. For another performer, these sentiments could have become a trudge, but for Bachmann, there’s a strange sort of energy that keeps them from bogging down.
“Your Apocalypse” (yeah, it doesn’t get any brighter) nearly bounces on Bachmann’s guitar part. His vocal delivery skips along, too, enough so that over the first half of the song you might wonder if there’s a happy ending coming. There isn’t—this is an apocalypse after all—but the song doesn’t suffer the fate of the singer. Instead it bears it.
The folk-rock of that track works in contrast to the rhythmic indie pulse of opener “Typhoon” or the tuneless guitar sounds at the start of “Bad Blood” (which may appease Archers fans), but all these songs share a similar vitality. Even in its most down moments, Breaks in the Armor has a drive behind it, making it the most energetic Crooked Fingers record. There’s restraint to be sure. Bachmann isn’t unleashing a great power-pop album no matter how strong his pop songwriting might be, but there’s a tension and propulsion behind everything.
The effect of the performance approach to these songs isn’t simply to juxtapose that energy with the potential lyrical drain. That would be a simple tactic and it would strip the songs of their suggestiveness. Instead, it complicates the whole affair. Despair, at least before its final gasps and maybe even then, can be a vital feeling. Bachmann captures that effect, but he doesn’t dwell on despair, choosing instead to find the nuances in certain turns of bleakness. As he sings in “War Horses”, “It’s too much for us to turn back now.” The best possible response then is some sort of honest examination of the situation, and that’s what Breaks in the Armor chases down.
The actual sound of the album, with its crisp tones amid plenty of space, helps develop the atmosphere. Lines about “black candles burning in the kerosene rain” would sound melodramatic, but here, they say what the album sounds like, providing a nice formal cohesion to the disc. Bachmann may be taking a stark look at things, but rarely had bleakness sounded so appealing.