Eric Bachmann, whose prior work stretches back to Archers of Loaf and Crooked Fingers, is from North Carolina: a southern state that, in the popular imagination, often marks a boundary of sorts between the northern and southern states. This tidbit of cultural geography is important for understanding his new self-titled solo album, which I take to be a letter to the south — one in which Bachmann isn’t afraid to reminisce, nor to lay bare the things he can’t stand about it.
The criticisms come early, and they’re rather pointed. “Mercy” finds Bachmann at his most blunt and sarcastic, with a church choir backing up his dinner table frustrations: “Well, I’ve got friends and I’ve got family / From Alaska to Miami / You won’t believe the crazy shit they sometimes say.” It’s music that can soundtrack trips home for Thanksgiving, when blue-state transplants are brought temporarily back into the red-state fold, and realize how difficult it can be to talk about anything with their family.
But Bachmann’s venting over southern politics soon becomes more reflective and poignant. On the very next song, “Masters of the Deal,” Bachmann sings, “What should be an old relic by now should never have been / The South is a ghost / A ghost is a lie.” As the album wears on, he finds things he appreciates, and learns to rest in what he can’t change: “Carolina, I’ve been blinded all this time / It’s a mystery / That’s all” he sings near the album’s end. On “Dreaming,” a touching ballad, he pleads, “Hey love, don’t turn on me know / I was gonna fight for you.” He could be talking about a loved one, or about North Carolina as a whole. In any case, it’s clear that love, and not hate is what motivates him to criticize. Even on “Mercy,” he eventually comes around: “I will love them to the end / Despite the batshit crazy things they often say.”
In the process of grappling with his home, Bachmann draws on a lot of post-industrial imagery to get at the fallen majesty of the South. “Masters of the Deal” mentions oil refineries, and the blue collar labourers whose livelihoods are cut short by “the sanctioned closure and the governor’s seal.”
The other prominent imagery is medical in nature: IVs, “modern drugs,” agoraphobia, anxiety, hospital gowns, and gurneys all make an appearance. It’s an album filled with characters in recovery, and others that are only beginning to receive the help they need.
This medical imagery, along with all the minor key songwriting, is perhaps what gives the album its wistful quality. Bachmann’s songs are unafraid to dabble in nostalgia, but they’re also unsparing; nostalgic for the sake of itself is never the end goal. “When I was just a child / The world it was an open door / And I could step inside / So many things that I looked forward to,” he sings on “Dreaming.” It seems like a nice memory, until you realize that the only reason he’s singing about it is because he feels unable to experience the world like that anymore.
I’ve talked a lot about the lyrics, but the melodies and instrumentation shine as well. Liz Durrett, another North Carolinian songwriter, contributes beautiful harmony vocals, and Jon Rauhouse, who plays with Bachmann in Neko Case’s band, brings an expert touch to the mournful slide guitar. Piano and acoustic guitar form the backbone of this batch of songs, while electric guitars are used atmospherically, which gives the songs a lot of unique and memorable textures.
Eric Bachmann was initially a chance LP purchase that ended up being my most frequently spun album of the first half of the year. I really hope Bachmann continues on with his solo career, as he has the songwriting chops, emotional experience, and lyrical directness to speak some wisdom into an America that is, politically speaking, less and less like the one he hopes it will be.