[19 May 2014]
Haley Bonar is a clever and witty pop singer songwriter who creates dark ditties about the unpleasantries of ordinary life. Bonar frequently mumbles her lyrics so that one is unsure of what she’s singing about and is forced to listen closely. This intimacy is reinforced by the throbbing accompaniment that lacks moments of instrumental clarity. The murky texture of her music creates turns her songs into something hypnotic, wistful, and a little disturbing. They are also exciting vignettes of musical discovery.
The songs all start at one place; the narrator figures out something about herself and others, and then end with an awareness—even if this just means the consciousness of being cognizant. Being alert can be its own reward and punishment. Bonar understands that one can think too much and “Kill the Fun”. It’s better just to enjoy the moment.
Bonar is intentionally droll, which means she can be humorous and serious at the same time. So when she croons a line such as, “So we learn to love our freedom from the cage,” we can understand the layered meanings: one doesn’t know what liberty is until one is enslaved, being imprisoned removes personal responsibility for one’s actions and behavior, and all the ironies implied, etc. She’s a bullet with butterfly wings, no doubt, but her rage is mostly self-directed. The jokes are on her.
So when she declares, “Don’t you love a man that cries,” Bonar soon blames herself for the problems of her relationship with the self-declared “Sensitive Man”. She doesn’t want to talk, but what she wants is not sex or companionship either. The last 30 seconds of the less than two and a half minute song turns into noise, mocking her confusion. Conceptually, her muddle makes sense. Do we ever know what we really want or need, or just know when we don’t have it despite our best efforts? Whatever. In her case, she feels “stupid and confused” rather than “stupid and contagious”, but she still wants to make a racket and rock out.
When Bonar gets lucky, she can’t believe it. And when Bonar celebrates that she has a “Bad Reputation”, she also regrets it. The referential title to the old Joan Jett hit reeks with sarcasm as Bonar’s narrator does give a damn about how she’s seen by others. Bonar pretends not to care to show how much she cares with an arrogance soaked in feelings of inferiority. Jett’s song was simple, anthemic, and proud. The ache in Bonar’s voice reveals her more ambiguous self-image—“a fun girlfriend” who “probably needs medication.”
The first eight short songs on the disc share a common level of musical commotion, but Bonar closes the album with the beautiful and unsettling acoustic song, “Eat for Free”. She sweetly croons about everything from the innocence of addiction to stars with million dollar guns while employing the metaphor about singing for one’s supper. We all do it. Working in a cubicle is as much performance art as putting on a show. Bonar knows that’s what life is, whether we like it or not.