Emotional Indie Folk
Bad Books’ third album, aptly titled III, is an introspective experience. Singer Kevin Devine not only brings us up close and personal with some of his most intimate songwriting to date, but it’s also an introspective experience for the listener. III is the kind of album that ought not to be taken lightly; though it may not be a modern masterpiece, it’s the kind of album that gives people pause and, whether you love it or are indifferent to it, you appreciate its ability to make one reflect.
The album opens on a cascading, arpeggiated guitar riff on “Wheel Well.” It’s a serene sounding song that evokes Iron & Wine comparisons, as its somber vocals mesh fluidly with airy guitar riffs and weighty piano chords. It sets the bittersweet framework through which the listener experiences the rest of the album perfectly.
Songs like “UFO” and “Myths Made Plain” give more modern folk singer-songwriter vibes. The latter is a biting social commentary, reflecting on the tumultuous course of recent American political history. “In 2017 we did away with facts,” Devine sings bluntly. He later harshly reminds us that the “American identity” has been “laid to waste.”
“Lake House,” one of the standout tracks of III, takes the well-established folk tonality of the previous tracks and expands upon it. Even relative to the other low-key instrumentations on III, “Lake House” is subdued and restrained; in the beginning of the song, the gentle acoustic chord progression is played so softly that it’s barely even audible. But it builds to a heart wrenching culmination, featuring haunting swells that expertly complement Devine’s sobering lyricism. “If I ever lose you/ that horrible day comes/ I don’t know how I’d recover/ I don’t know what race I’d run/ but I’d know that I love you,” Devine sings. It’s a song about love and loss, and even more so the paralyzing fear induced by just the thought of losing the person you love more than anyone else.
“I Love You, I’m Sorry, Please Help Me, Thank You” sees Devine opening up about the challenges of raising a child. “When I opened my perspective from my fear of the world/ to the daughter I was trying to raise/ the total sum of everything asleep in my lap/ I could hear I was the one in my way.” This track masterfully conveys Devine’s struggle with the weight of parenthood and the self-doubt associated with it.
“Neighborhood,” though perhaps not the most musically unique or interesting track on III, is another lyrical gem. This time Devine takes aim at suburbia, essentially telling the listener that the suburban mob mentality causes people to ostracize anyone who dares to be different and silence anyone who challenges the status quo. In case there was any doubt, Devine promptly reminds us, “I don’t belong here.”
As the album progresses, Devine continues to tackle a number of emotional issues. “Left Your Body” stresses the themes of death and loss. Devine sings, “And all that I can do is hope/ that the Lord will treat me/ the way I believe he treated you/ when you left this Earth and body.” “Supposed To Be” is a song with a darker sound than many others on the album, and it touches upon the concepts of self and identity, as Devine continually asks the same question: “What am I supposed to be now?”
The album concludes in near-perfect fashion with “Army.” It’s a sprawling, six-minute epic that is the album’s magnum opus. Early in the song, Devine’s somber, almost lifeless vocals alongside a droning guitar riff makes the song not just sad, but deflating. The refrain is a continual one-upping of worst-case scenarios, as Devine repeatedly sings “There’s nothing worse than ___.” These include “a poverty line,” “being intertwined” and “losing your mind.” Musically, “Army” employs ambient chords that evoke surreal, other-worldly imagery. Meanwhile as the tension builds, the use of big, fuzzy synth chords is a nice callback to “Lake House.” The song is a swirling, stirring and dramatic emotional odyssey that, despite its somber tone, leaves the listener with a twinge of optimism: “there’s nothing wrong with being alive.”
III is an excellent indie-folk record and an even better case study of human emotions. While it suffers at times from musical homogeny and a lack of thematic focus—it’s tough to pin down a big-picture message from III other than “life is hard”—there’s no denying the quality, depth and complexity of these songs. Longtime Bad Books fans will be ecstatic that the band has returned to form after a seven-year gap between studio albums, and new listeners will find plenty to contemplate.