I’ve been listening to Garland of Bottle Flies for about a year now, since it started floating around with the unofficial, but succinct, name of Bummer. After all that time, it still reveals new pieces of itself. Alabama’s 13Ghosts have long been known for a unique brand of dark, atmospheric rock ‘n’ roll, but Bottle Flies easily stands as its most unified vision yet. It’s hard not to think of the album in visual terms, as if it were a house — albeit a house of empty, dusty rooms. Nearly every song, especially if you’re from the American South, creates a fractured version of situations you’ve found yourself on the edges of, and definitely didn’t want to be a part of.
Thirteen years into its existence, 13Ghosts (the name refers to a collection of stories by Alabama folklorist Kathryn Tucker Windham) have crafted their most sprawling, exciting work yet. In stark contrast to the more raucous and immediate Liar’s Melody (also released in 2011), 13Ghosts’ Bottle Flies is a complex full-length meditation on violence and depression. Originally started by longtime songwriting pair Buzz Russell and Bradley Armstrong, the album almost died from neglect after Russell left the band. Eventually, though, Armstrong cast his eye to finishing Garland‘s songs, finding free reign to explore his literate, Southern Gothic tendencies in the song frameworks that Russell had left behind.
Perhaps that explains why Garland of Bottle Flies feels like the most cohesive 13Ghosts record to date. From start to finish, it’s grim and haunting, with its narrators standing at a crossroads where things are falling apart in whatever direction they look. Heck, if songs like lilting opener “While You Were Bathing” are any indication (“While you were bathing dear / I swallowed all of your sleeping pills”), half the characters on Garland might even be dead and speaking from beyond the grave. On the emotional and folky “Wicked Drink”, Armstrong’s narrator admires his woman (“You gather up all your hair in those shades of bourbon”) before it becomes clear that she’s the “angel sleeping underneath my garden shed” and that things took a violent and obsessed turn somewhere along the line. In “Whitey Joe”, Armstrong sings, “I’ve been saving up my violence for the times that are coming / I smell that murder working over on the breeze”.
All the violence and death, though, isn’t for the sake of indulging some Flannery O’Connor obsession where every song holds a Misfit. Throughout Garland of Bottle Flies, Armstrong paints a picture of normal lives and relationships falling apart (“Will all my women pour me like salt into their drinks?”) and of people doing their best to find their way through, even if that sometimes means making it through the day only because they’re self-medicating, or maybe not making it at all. The record strikes me as a kindred spirit to the Sadies’ impressive 2010 release, Darker Circles, which found a gray sort of life in lyrics like “I turn to oblivion night after night / I’ll wait right here, smoking and drinking and smoking and dropping”. But whereas Darker Circles found much of its identity in the Sadies’ narcotic twang, Bottle Flies links its songs together with the sounds of tapes warbling down and coming back up, squeals and sounds that carry over from one song to the next, and songs that start by stepping on the hems of the ones that have just finished. The record ebbs and flows, rocks and hushes, and never loses sight of this grim malaise that acts like a cold engine at its heart.
In the midst of all this, two songs battle it out for the title of the album’s centerpiece. “Dr. Bill” comes in on acoustic guitar and stabs of electric guitar as its narrator asks the titular physician, “Do you have anything stronger than this?” As the song progresses, it reaches a crescendo of claims and rationalizations about how normal he is (“My bank account is positive / My checks are good; my rent is paid … I’ve never lived beyond my means; my house is clean”) even as more and more cracks begin to show. Then the music drops away, giving him plenty of space to offer, “There are no voices in my head / Everything I hear is real / There are no monsters in my bed / Everything I dreamed is dead”.
This catalog of personal disintegration stands in stark contrast to “Billy Dee”, a ten-minute epic in which two men begin a verbal battle over their history with a preacher’s daughter, and finally turn things physical with the police chief presiding over the fight. It’s a vivid portrait of two men living on a violent fringe, and the descriptions of Billy Dee himself — “I saw Billy Dee in the bathroom; he was looking real bad lately / It seemed like he’d dirtied up his act some / Put the crank down to something stronger” and “Then Billy laughed hard, like a dead man choking on a pile of dirt”, to list a couple — are vivid and laced with danger.
“Billy Dee” and “Dr. Bill” stand as massive cornerstones where the themes and sounds Garland of Bottle Flies all come together. While the record’s other songs might sit in the shadows of those two efforts, there’s not a song on Bottle Flies that can’t stand alone. Murder Ballads-era Nick Cave (who Armstrong cites as an influence) would be envious of the way the album’s ten short stories — “Billy Dee”, in particular — uncurl like petals on some graveyard flower. It’s an impressive work that stands as one of 2011’s best albums.