There’s something eerily hypnotic about walking through a deserted landscape at night. Crowds have dispersed, traffic has slowed down to an infrequent trickle and fluorescent lights cast a spooky yellow glow that renders familiar surroundings strange and unsettling. It’s easy to slip into a sort of a contemplative trance as you battle against the body clock’s urgent call to get some shuteye.
If the twilit, restless mood of Believers is anything to go by, A. A. Bondy must be intimately familiar with the mind-set of a sleep-deprived late night traveller. Written and recorded as the Alabama-born songwriter was relocating to Los Angeles, clocking considerable mileage in the process, the album’s rich textures and ghostly ambience reside in an entirely different galaxy from both the sparse Americana explored on Bondy’s previous solo releases (2007’s American Heart, 2009’s When The Devil’s Loose) and the grungy rock action of the guitarist/singer’s former band Verbena.
Bondy’s intention was to situate Believers in the centre of a square with Brian Eno, Gospel, Motown and an unnameable mystery element at its corners. The pounding at the core of the uncharacteristically robust opener ‘The Heart Is Willing’ nods towards Detroit’s pop dream factory, and the expansive, pulsating mini-epic likes of ‘The Twist’ suggest an in-depth
knowledge of the Eno canon. That aside, Believers is a genuine one-off with no obvious predecessors; simultaneously comfortingly familiar in that it mines a rich seam of classic rock gold, and totally unknowable in its dedicated efforts to cruise to the heart of nocturnal melancholy on the wings of ambient interludes that hiss and moan like a choir of regret-laden ghosts.
Elliott Smith collaborator Rob Schnapf’s production deserves extra credit. Rarely have so many different shades been teased out of such a limited palette. Believers withdraws maximum expressiveness from a skeletal line-up of guitar, bass, drums, an occasional trickle of echo-heavy piano, and the eerie, tear-stained wail of pedal steel; the notes twisted with an array of reverb and distortion to produce a dense, hypnotic soup of sound. The result is music of alluring contradictions: stark and elemental yet richly detailed and luxuriously textured, low-key and downcast yet subtly soaring, half-whispered but forever hovering on the brink of cacophonous release, grandly lush yet raw and restless.
Initially, the songs appear to be playing second fiddle to the atmospherics. But the initial impression of mid-tempo sleepiness is deceptive. Allow the likes of the minimalistic, urgent ‘Skull & Bones’ and the soul scorcher-shaped ‘Surfer King’ a while to reveal their hidden depths, and the album gradually sinks in an array of sharp hooks. ‘Down in the Fire’ could almost stand in for a Richard Hawley ballad, only with the romance corroded by one too many bad turns, the track’s heavy-lidded mournfulness eventually giving way to an extended coda of uneasy ambience. The lovely ‘DRMZ’ sparkles like an offcut from the third Velvet Underground album, as rendered by Being There-era Wilco, Bondy’s voice teetering on the brink of tears like Jeff Tweedy at his finest, with a drop of sneer-free young Dylan added for extra grit. The road-weary beauty of ‘Rte 28/Believers’ eventually blooms into a slow-motion second movement that’s like a ray of tentative early morning sunlight peeking through the impenetrable darkness of night.
Throughout, these downbeat tunes about travel, restlessness, unease, dreaming and sleep (and lack thereof) pack enough mystery and spirit to avoid the navel-gazing pitfalls songwriters tend to stumble into when operating on the Blues-fuelled dark side. Believers is the exciting sound of a remarkable songwriter finding his own, genuinely unique voice; a masterful album of arresting details forming a cohesive, hugely compelling whole that’s so much more than a sum of its impressive parts.