Once its instrumental leadoff track “Islero” has risen from the horizon like the title sequence of a Sergio Leone film, daydreaming of sepia-toned dust crushed under Calexico shoes, Crooked Fingers’ Dignity and Shame opens with a resounding call to comfort: “Come on now and wrap your weary arms around the ones you love”.
And so goes the fourth full length album from Eric Bachmann’s Crooked Fingers. Dignity and Shame is about the promise of human compassion, a wise and weathered presence that consoles while acknowledging that the world is not a perfect place. It’s a sly about-face for Bachmann, who has used Crooked Fingers to chart darker copses in the human heart, most notably on 2003’s Red Devil Dawn and songs like “Big Darkness” and “Bad Man Coming”. Though Dignity and Shame is predominantly upbeat (quicker paces, major chords, choruses that are simply anthemic), it doesn’t betray Bachmann’s weary worldview; rather, the album’s songs offer and seek solace with the understanding that such solace should be smothered upon receipt.
Simply put, Dignity and Shame wants love at any cost. Bachmann’s version of love is not the idealized and sanitized object of feel-good pop music; it’s an attainable, yet often elusive, object of all our desires. The slow moving ballad “Destroyer” equates love with defeat (“Resign your heart today / To get blown away”) before disintegrating into a guitar and drum freak out. “You Must Build a Fire”, a delicate fusion of acoustic guitar and lap steel, defines love as a search beyond “the wicked things you do”. The propulsive serenade “Valerie”, its bottom end persistently bounding under some sprightly mariachi horns, strolls with the innocence of a drunken courtship. There’s a disarming simplicity to these songs, like they’re fundamental wants of a collectively shared heart, a direct connection unlike any Bachmann has made to date.
The two most devastating songs are saved for last “Wrecking Ball” muses on betrayal, passive-aggressively chiding those who turn their backs to happiness in order to gain a sense of accomplishment: “If it makes you feel good you can make them feel bad / It’s an easy call / So when nothing remains you can stand there and claim / You’ve destroyed them all”. Bachmann’s voice, stretching and contracting like cracked leather, is as defensive as it is regretful, reflecting over the nimbly brushed drums and stifled guitars. The closing title track is the final emotional blow, a sober piano ballad that counters resistance with the only reasonable truth: “You’ve got to carry your heart like a torch in the night”.
Bachmann’s voice remains the immediate identifying factor for Crooked Fingers’ sound: like fellow gravelly throated troubadours Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, and Nick Cave, Bachmann sings like a stray dog serenading the junkyard. Dignity and Shame features Australian singer Lara Meyerratken on a handful of tracks, her pale, pastoral voice the perfect foil to Bachmann’s gritty timbre. The two duet on the radio-ready rocker “Call to Love”, Meyerratken deflecting Bachmann’s advances (“Love is a fine thing to take a chance on” he implores). In “Twilight Creeps”, the male and female voices twist in beautiful assimilation as Bachmann asks, “Why does everybody always act so tough / When all anybody wants is to find a friend”.
If Bachmann officially solidified his place in modern song with Red Devil Dawn, then Dignity and Shame lodges that place in cement for posterity. As some may have predicted with Archers of Loaf’s underrated 1998 masterpiece White Trash Heroes, his songs will easily become standards in future decades, timeless and universal as they are. Moving farther away from the more oblique stylings once heralded in Archers of Loaf, Bachmann is now the ultimate composite of his equals: he possesses Springsteen’s fatalism and redemption, Dylan’s reinstituted folk melodies, and Cave’s direct, logical lyricism. So effortless are his songs and performances, when he invites, “Come on, the stars are shining on you” and instructs his band to beat a single chord into the ground, we come running to see what the fuss is about. With Dignity and Shame, Bachmann wraps his weary arms around the ones he loves and leaves us somewhat pacified in the infectious embrace.