Something Other Than Numb: Listening to Eric Bachmann

Erich Bachmann

I’m gonna love you like we’re all each other have. — Eric Bachmann, “Mercy”

Archers of Loaf are one of those bands I know I’m supposed to know. I wince when I see the name, because to my knowledge, I’ve never heard a single song, and I’m probably missing something important. Add that to an ever-growing list. If there’s one thing being a music critic in 2016 teaches you, it’s how goddamn much you’re missing, how small a dent you’ll ever make in the enormous pile of music that’s piling up each day. The way I consume music changed rapidly since I became the music editor here; for the first time I began to feel overwhelmed. It’s almost like trying to singlehandedly cover the entirety of music released in a year made me resent all of it.

Complete freedom brings the curse of complete helplessness; I finally see how small, biased and specific my interests are. Last night I met with a brilliant writer, and since we’re both lovers of the intensely personal, in the course of our conversation we began to tussle with the idea of objectivity. “There is no objectivity,” she said confidently. “Everything boils down to this: I loved someone and they hurt me.” Tracing back through my own writing, I felt a shiver of truth in these words. Tracing back through all the art I fiercely connect with, too, this sentiment hold firm. Instead, I’d rather acknowledge how hapless all of us are, pretending to possess a singular, great discernment, when really we’re just following our noses toward smells we already loved. When really, we’re just listening to whatever makes sense in our lives right now, what our friends love, what someone who was reliable once before said would make us feel something other than numb. When I was feeling numb about music as a whole, Eric Bachmann’s self-titled record crept in.

After some debate, I decided I’m not going to do an Archers of Loaf cram session either. Maybe I’ll get into them some day if someone I love cares about them, that’s pretty much the only way I dive backwards into the indie rock canon, anyway. (If anything, I might listen to Bachmann’s other solo project Crooked Fingers because my editor raves about them.) Sometimes, an indie rock pedigree is the only reason a solo record gets attention, but even if Bachmann was a nobody, this record would’ve surfaced. I think people assume that being an honest, intimate and still relatable songwriter is easy, and it’s just that some musicians aren’t willing to be vulnerable. They’re half right: the willingness to crack your heart open is a singular quality. But there are plenty of musicians–writers, artists, directors–laying their souls bare and connecting with absolutely no one. Usually, they’re trying so hard to get at Universal Great Truths that they strip their experience of the specifics, and instead deliver lukewarm slop. No fear of that here, true to the title, Bachmann’s album is all about him, and by extension, all about all of us.

The opener, “Belong To You,” is the Psalm 23 of love songs, a tender ballad about walking toward the coming dark without fear. It’s intimate like the last smoldering coals of a campfire, moves like a slow pony through the desert. Listening to it feels like walking into a barn full of dozing animals who are lowing peaceful in their own dreams, or sleeping at last in the arms of someone your heart feels pulled toward. Magnetism and eventuality mingle together in the sweetly warped melodies and stately drums, and, this is almost a country song, I laughed to myself. I thought about how much I want to hear it in a bar equipped with plenty of whiskey and a jukebox [and you]. The very next track, “Mercy,” spins its heel toward that innocence, manifesting nihilism in a gospel doo-wop parade and spitting existentialism down golden harmonies; Bachmman becomes a cussing Rumpelstiltskin with a clear-eyed tenor. As a songwriter, he’s interested in the intricate betrayals of our hearts, but he’s also deeply concerned with the systematic corruption that informs these inconsistencies, especially in the South.

Speaking of the region, there’s a glimmer like a halo around all the guitar sounds here, it’s the equivalent of a drawl, almost, and shows up in the clarity of the piano, the blade of Bachmann’s raspy, warm vocals, and the consistency of a crew born and bred in a culture that still nurses live music like a precious newborn. He’s enlisted quite a few names to put this thing together–Jeremy Wheatley, Matthew Nelson, Jon Rauhouse, Tracey Wolf, Samara Waller, Wade Rittenberry, and Liz Durrett–and they show up not just instrumentally, but on scattered, complicated harmonies throughout. This happens most notably when the women take over on “Dreaming” to deliver the honeyed, aching refrain: “Hey love, don’t turn on me now / I was going to fight for you.” Timing, or something like it, decides how and when we pick our battles, and “Dreaming” is a North Carolina nature walk that muses which hearts are worth the fight, which dreams are worth our mooning. Bachmann may be in the latter half of his life, but this record nudges playfully toward internalized fears of childhood on the jittery “Separation Fright,” and shimmies into disillusioned lullaby territory on “Small Talk.”

In the midst of my drought and skepticism, Bachmann’s intimate, unassuming album sparked something. The best compliment I can pay him is to say this record reminds me of Bill Fay’s release last year, Who Is The Sender, and achieves a similarly mischievous balance of wisdom and innocence; it interrogates the spiritual world with the same prodding grace. In creating something so personal, Bachmann has provided a lens for us to apply his prudence to our own lives. “It’s only mercy now that you need in your world,” he sings on his song named after the principle, invoking it while underwriting the very spiritual framework it springs from. It’s a strange sermon from a singular voice, a brutal interrogation of the flaws of religion and, most likely, someone he loved who hurt him. Mercy means we don’t let the pain of the past stop us from loving each other like we’re all each other have. So even if I don’t know anything about Archers of Loaf, I have Eric Bachmann. Today, that’s enough to thaw my numbness, that’s enough to get me through.

Eric Bachmann is out on 3/25 on Merge. Get it here or stream below.

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