This is the thawing season, and it hurts. My heart, frozen all winter, is melting, and my tears choke me and bang at the back of my eyes. And this album sounds like almost-spring, like tears hanging heavy in your throat, like thawing. “Belong To You” starts with a long, lonesome piano lilt and then a steel guitar, so sad, comes in. It stretches out like the long evenings of late winter. I had a dream, Eric Bachmann sings, to one long-lost. One of those loves that still feels so strong and real that in dreams you think they’ve returned to you, only to wake and find out they have not. I woke at the break of dawn to the silence of the boats on the bay, as I reached out for you—but you were long gone. Do the long evenings bring relief? Do they ease your thawing, aching heart? If they do, even a little, it is a merciful thing. “Mercy,” with the bright jangle of the cymbals and the doo-wop backup vocals, sounds like ‘60s pop, almost too sweet, until you listen to the words. I don’t believe in armageddon, heaven, hell, or time regretting. I’m gonna love you like we’re all each other have. Sometimes it feels like armageddon is the only thing left to believe in, but maybe sometimes there’s still something else to hold onto, when you can love someone—or many someones—like you’re all each other have.
“Masters of the Deal” is about injustice, about the South and its false promises, about violence and racism. It’s a political song, which surprised me a little. I read an interview with Eric Bachmann, oh, a decade ago, wherein he said something along the lines of: “I find the way the human heart works a much more interesting topic than how much Bush sucks.” But then, “Masters of the Deal” isn’t a straightforward political song. This is no didactic punk band shouting at you that this sucks and if you don’t agree you’re wrong, it’s a story that’s as much about the way the human heart works as it is about anything else. How can the human heart allow us to commit such violence against each other? Speaking of the human heart—sometimes it needs chemicals to allay its ache, as in “Modern Drugs.” The sweet swing of the piano and the percussive brush sound like New York City to me, and I recognize the characters in this song. They’re older versions of characters from previous Crooked Fingers albums. They’re older versions of characters from my own life. Straight life is such a bore, says the refrain, and though I don’t touch modern drugs anymore, I still feel that way sometimes. The heart still longs for what used to take the edge off. And there is “Dreaming.” The opening piano reminds me of “Moonlight Sonata,” that saddest, most beautiful sound. In the yellow pines, I hear the wild bird singing the sweetest lullaby that set my mind to dreaming, Eric sings. Oooooh, ooooh, croon the backup singers, a chorus of dreaming ghosts. Then: Hey love, don’t turn on me now. I was gonna fight for you. A plea, repeated four times. My throat thickening with tears. Hey love, don’t turn on me now. I was gonna fight for you. I was gonna fight for you.
“Separation Fright,” “Small Talk,” and “Carolina,” while all good tunes, are the most forgettable songs on the album. They are not anthems or ballads, not for me; they don’t make me smile with sweetness or cause the tears to well up in my eyes, in my throat. My thawing heart does not long to hear them. The rest of the songs would be stronger if Eric had cut these three tracks and released this as an EP rather than a full-length album. Again, it’s not that I dislike them, it’s just… The first time I listened to the album I spent the entirety of it waiting for a moment I wasn’t sure would come. I was waiting for a moment of recognition, of revelation. See, Eric Bachmann has written a lot of songs, a lot of albums that hit so close to home for me it was as though he’d ripped the stories from the pages of my diary. (Most notably his 2006 solo album, To The Races, and the 2005 Crooked Fingers album Dignity and Shame.) And I hoped beyond hope that this album would have at least one song like that, one song that would make me say: “Get out of my head, god damn it.” When I got to the second-to-last track and hadn’t heard it yet, I doubted it was there at all. But then the final track played, and yes, yes, there it was.
“The Old Temptation.” It is the longest track on the album, it feels endless and I don’t want it to ever end. For all the love you leave along the wildly winding way you choose to go, there’s never any meaning. The way the city lights all shine and glow as you approach, but you don’t know. It makes you feel so alone, so alone. And yes, and yes, get out of my head, god damn it. It just seems I was always leaving, and this song knows that feeling. Halfway through, the lyrics end and there’s this beautiful instrumental bit with ambient noise in the background that sounds like an AM dial flicking between frequencies. Like you’re on the road, in the middle of nowhere, trying to find a song to sing along to. And look, here comes a voice faintly through the static, a voice from some distant station. You can barely hear what he’s saying, but the words you do catch make you cry: evenings. Old photographs. Never to be seen again. The end of the track brings me back home, with a bird chirping like the springtime birds outside my window.
I don’t love this whole album, but “Belong to You,” “Mercy,” “Masters of the Deal,” “Modern Drugs,” “Dreaming,” and most especially “The Old Temptation” make it well worth repeat listens. And it does my very human, thawing heart good to hear songs by someone like Eric Bachmann—someone who is wearied by the world but still holds onto a clutch of hope. Maybe there’s hope for me, if I can just get out into that springtime and find some new temptations.
Eric Bachmann is out on Merge Records. More information and purchase information is available via Merge.