[3 November 2009]
Mr. Bondy stubs his cigarette into an overfull ashtray. Tightening the strap on his dusty guitar case, Bondy walks down the creaky steps of his front porch where the pinky fingers of another morning are beginning to spread across the Tennessee sky. His blue-jeans are stained with gas station coffee, or an oil spot from fixing up his broken-down pickup. Bondy sighs sorrowfully, readying himself for another day on the road.
That’s the image Mr. Bondy clearly aims to convey of himself. It is intentionally poeticized and tactfully angsty but it comes across as nothing but genuine. AA Bondy, the Alabaman folk singer-songwriter, has clearly found that kind of religion you find only after you’ve exhausted all others—that wistful redemption in futility and a certain wonder in an inscrutable world. Bondy sings with weary resignation and strained sincerity, with a voice that lands somewhere between sad and tired. On When the Devil’s Loose, Bondy fuses imagery of crimson moonlit nights and limitless oceans with religious mysticism to evoke a beauty in nihilism. Bondy, however depressed he may be and however hopeless he sounds, is a man in love with the world.
While aesthetically it is most appealing to picture Mr. Bondy as a lone cowboy troubadour, the addition of a backing band on When the Devil’s Loose represents a distinct musical improvement. When the Devil’s Loose has a certain fullness and grace that was lacking on Bondy’s otherwise impressive freshman effort American Hearts. For instance, “I Can See the Pines are Dancing” sounds almost hymnal with upbeat strumming guitars and gently trotting drums. Title track “When the Devil’s Loose” is a bittersweet sunset ballad that benefits from upwelling crescendos and a tender violin solo, while “False River” puts the perfect minor tones into effect to create an eerie feeling of emotional imbalance.
Despite the new backing band, Bondy’s signature croon still dictates the mood of the album. His songs have a world-weary beauty, the feeling of an early morning and a late night tied into one. It feels believably like he is drawing on the gravity of his own experience when he cautions, “Give yourself some room / You can’t get your arms around everybody / You can’t carry the doom”. Ponderous thoughts such as these add a weight to the music that helps establish a rustic and soulful atmosphere.
Bondy certainly nails the mood, crafting a fine soundtrack to long days and dusty landscapes. The question is whether he achieves anything greater than a solid addition to the already oversaturated folk-rock genre. Certainly, the poetic lyrics help add a depth to the album that transcends generic indie-folk fare. Bondy often invokes the supernatural, usually with metaphorical undertones, populating his songs with vampires, devils, and the like. At its best, the juxtaposition between hopeless empty expanses and transcendental mythology can feel poignantly bittersweet. To this effect, Bondy threads his naturalistic imagery throughout with nihilistic musings. “I’m laughing cause I know there ain’t not sin”, he sings on “The Mightiest of Guns”. From the feverish title track to the lyrical centerpiece, “Vampyre’s Heart”, in which he puts his own unshaven spin on the all-too-hot vampire trope, Bondy crafts a unique world in which the supernatural commingles with quotidian daily existence.
At times, of course, all of the pained ponderousness and mystical hoopla can be a bit much. Put together, Bondy’s songs have an over-seriousness that can start to feel oppressive or exhausting. While he does a laudable job of balancing emotionality and restraint, the album is a little too muted and somber to reach any truly standout highs or peak moments on its own.
In the end, When the Devil’s Loose is a sparse gem. If I had a front-porch in the heartland with a creaky rocking chair, I imagine I would listen to this album and think about how fitting it was, with autumn approaching, to be listening to this album on that rocking chair on that front porch. For those lacking such a porch, Bondy’s latest effort still proves a solid and thoughtful experience for aesthetic wanderers the world throughout.