Something subtle this way comes: Veteran bands release a mostly quiet affair that provides a genuinely avant-garde notion: Close listening.
Bombadil continues to impress with its diverse range of influences and its penchant for destroying everything you thought you knew about the group with each successive release. Fences is certainly the group’s most minimalistic effort. The vocals are the most prominent musical element here with piano, guitar, and bass filtering in only in the softest, quietest corners of the songs. It’s not so much that you forget the instruments are there (at moments you do) but that when a nice bass line (courtesy Stacy Harden) rises out of the mix, it’s more noticeable than if it were a constant, throbbing presence.
The songwriting itself never evolves in an expected way either. Bombadil has always been a band capable of offering hook-laden material seemingly conceived for the concert stage where happy throngs would raise their voices high alongside the band’s. Yet it’s hard to pinpoint anything here that feels exactly like a hook; a chorus one could sing along with during or after any of the tracks have come to a close. Taken together, these tactics (the almost absence of the instrumentation, the understated lyrics, and subversion of expectations) add up to a record that’s nearly 100 times more challenging than if it were comprised entirely of atonal fugues.
One wonders if the approach stands as a response to the high volume, high emotion ways of our times when the subtle gets lost faster than a bearded, bespectacled man at a summer festival. The listening, then, the leaning toward the speakers to hear the vocal and instrumental parts more closely, the patience it takes to unravel the mysteries found in the words, rewards us slowly and by gentle persuasion rather than force. The things that seem absent on our first go come to light on those return visits.
“Perfect” is a perfectly crafted pop song as good as anything the band’s written before but it never announces as such. “Good News Sadie” offers more of the same, though it comes the closest to raising its voice as it rises to musical heights other numbers resist. Throughout it all, Bombadil’s trademark wry humor and ability to speak the truth about matters of the heart and the large disappointments and slender victories life offers comes to the fore, allowing us to crack small but impressive grins during “Math and Love” and “I Could Make You So Happy.”
By the time the record closes up shop, you feel as though maybe you’ve listened to a single rather than an album, each of the pieces seeming to whir by at a speed too much for our brains to register. That doesn’t always make for a fully satisfying experience, even if you could count yourself among Bombadil’s staunchest fans. Most great bands reach such a moment in their careers, making an album that will somehow leave the core audience scratching its heads and wondering what happened. That’s a sign of artistic growth but also a sign of dedication for those who can sit it out and emerge on the other side, faithful as ever.
Whatever the intentions and discussions Fences raises it’s bound to stand as Bombadil’s boldest moment and one that some other bands could take their cues from. After all, what could be braver, bolder and more avant-garde than asking us to pay attention and find the moments we love most for ourselves. If the record were to succeed on no other terms, it would still stand as a remarkable statement, but it has far more victories to its credit than that. This is as much an exit for some fans as it’s a point of entry for others. Welcome.