Review Summary: If God is goosebumps, you're the proof
Over the years, my relationship with Bad Books has been one of middling interest. Andy Hull and Kevin Devine making music together sounds like a dream, but for whatever reason I’ve always found their separate
output more alluring than anything they’ve concocted within the walls of a shared studio. However, III
represents a breakthrough for the indie-rock side project, and for the first time Bad Books exists as an entity that easily measures up to Devine’s – and perhaps even more impressively, Manchester Orchestra’s – fabled output. In fact, III
might be the best thing that either artist has accomplished, together or independently. That’s some outrageous praise, but I can assure you that this album is deserving.
is the antithesis of a full-bodied culmination for these guys; rather than wrapping Manchester Orchestra’s slick and moody rock around Devine’s thoughtful provocations, they each scale things down to musical bare knuckles. When Hull sings, “What an empty, gorgeous place” with swelling affection on ‘UFO’, he might very well have been describing their songwriting approach to III
– an album that carries little in the way of embellishment, but crushes listeners under the weight of its sheer emotion. The mantra “Simon & Garfunkel in space” was repeated in the studio according to an intriguing Fader
interview, and it’s a comparison that has stuck with me because of how simple and accurate it is. Hull and Devine sound hauntingly poignant together, while tying personal revelations (both recently became fathers) to anxiety over today’s reactive and volatile society. The acoustic, folksy bend to III
gives it a timeless structure – this momentary lapse in chaos; an oasis in life’s harsh and unforgiving desert. As they ponder weighty philosophical topics and wax poetic, it’s a still frame look inside of two vastly different minds – one religious and one secular – who just happen to share a lot of the same concerns.
On the opening ‘Wheel Well’, you get an accurate summation of what III
is all about. Amid gorgeous acoustics and subtle piano glimmers, Devine sings in stunning self-harmonization, “If the people you meet, are mostly you in disguise / Want what you want, something good in their lives / Is that a socialist song？ / An invocation of Christ, I guess / It's whatever you like.” The first line is particularly clever, likening us all to doppelgangers of ourselves – altered only by the cards that life has dealt us. It’s a beautiful and thought-provoking moment, one that might have highlighted any other Devine album, but is merely a drop in the water on III
. Hull immediately makes his presence felt on the ensuing ‘UFO’ – a track that seems to deal with time, space, and God, all the while weaving the concepts into the heartbreaking detriments of Alzheimer’s disease: “Just because I can't remember who I used to be, it doesn't mean that I can't tell you when I'm evaporating / There is nothing in your eyes, there is nothing in the wind…I'm a million years away, you're another million more.” Much like he did throughout the peaks of A Black Mile to the Surface
, Hull again reaches his listeners through gut-wrenching lyrics and sweeping, intriguingly layered vocal harmonies. There isn’t much to accent it besides some haunting, apparition-like ahh
’s in the background, and when Hull drops the aforementioned line about it being a “beautiful, empty place”, it feels like a funeral for the mind of the song’s subject – someone he clearly loved a great deal.
The lyrical dynamic between Hull and Devine is an interesting one to pay attention to, because whereas Hull tends to err on the side of abstraction – utilizing metaphors to paint a picture – Devine often capitalizes on that floating sense of ambiguity by striking with something more tangible and impactful. ‘Myths Made Plain’ is one of the more immediate melodies to grace III
, featuring an earworm chorus, and Devine shifts the thematic focus to the modern political climate: “So in 2017 we did away with facts / All negotiation with a battle axe / The gruesome ideology is center shame / American identity was laid to waste.” The seamless blend of melodic verses with pristine acoustic guitars and distant, synth-bound choral harmonies makes for one of the most decorated songs that Bad Books has ever made – a jolt of energy into an experience that is skeletal by design.
Of course then, Hull defies the direction taken by ‘Myths Made Plain’ with the lush, jaw-dropping ballad ‘Lake House’, which is the most minimal/lo-fi effort on the album. Hull divulged to Paste
that they wanted to “place it in a sonic environment that felt three dimensional. Instead of just hearing the song left and right, we wanted to have the sounds feel forward, backwards, above and below. Hopefully achieving a certain level of floating and immersive movements…” The song easily achieves such buoyancy, and then Hull – in typical fashion – drops an earth-mover of an emotional bomb on his listeners: “When I asked to speak about it, you made it real easy for me / Just because we have a baby, doesn't mean that you belong to me.” The song seems to cover a wide range of topics, but when it reaches its zenith with that line, as well as the subsequent echoes of “the day that we swore on that ring”, it’s one of those moments that turns a superb record into a classic.
swings like a pendulum, with Hull lifting us to the stars and Devine keeping us rooted in the real world. “I Love You, I’m Sorry, Please Help Me, Thank You” is very much the whirlwind of emotions that it sounds like it would be, with Devine covering everything from the birth of his daughter (“When I opened my perspective from my fear of the world / For the daughter I was trying to raise / With the total sum of everything asleep in my lap”) to his apprehension about the unrest occurring worldwide and the kind of future that will exist for his next of kin: “When the nationalist demagogues eat the desperately confused…We're so far past civility it feels useless to argue.” The great thing about this song – and one thing that Bad Books masters on this otherwise achingly bleak record – is the art of the silver lining. At the end of that verse, Devine adds, “Love isn't passive, a trick or a tactic / It's radical action, so go let 'em have it” in what feels like a guide for his own daughter on how to survive the vitriol of the twenty first century. He gets a double-header so to speak with the ensuing ‘Neighborhood’ – Kevin’s swing at minimalism – and he knocks it out of the park using nothing more than his words. The song is a frightening account of the mob mentality – how easy it is to let evil transpire as a bystander: “They're gonna tie him to the back of my neighbor's car / They're gonna drag him naked out in the street / They're gonna tell him that he chose to be different / And that's a lofty irredeemable fee… That man has never once harmed me in any way / That man has always been thoughtful to me / But I just can't disagree with the neighborhood / I'm afraid they'll start talking 'bout me.” It’s not too dissimilar from the track ‘Desert’ from Brand New’s 2017 release Science Fiction
, where Lacey depicted the mentality of a closed-minded bigot who would resort to shooting those who disagreed with him, all before hitting listeners with “God is love” at the end of the song – effectively negating the hypothetical protagonist’s outlook in one fell swoop. Here, Devine rebukes the content of the song with a moving outro of “I don't belong here.” The one-two punch of ‘I Love You, I’m Sorry, Please Help Me, Thank You’ and ‘Neighborhood’ makes for a dynamic one-two punch of an album centerpiece, and one that’s rooted in a very frightening reality.
For as incredible as the entirety of III
is from a vocal, lyrical, and atmospheric perspective, the music only gets better during the album’s back half. There’s a moment on ‘I Wrote It Down For You’ that is absolutely transcendent, where pianos twinkle like stars in a far off galaxy and a series of heavy guitar strums crunch with fervor, all before letting up into a cloud of harmonized vocals where Hull and Devine sing in unison: “I exist and so do you / If God is goosebumps, you're the proof.” It’s one of those songs where you can almost feel your feet hovering above ground; a spiritual experience through music. Hull adds another diamond of a lyrical excerpt via the sprawling, spacious ‘Left Your Body’, where he sings “I couldn't even wrap my head around how I could find a throne for judging / Still I sat there quietly, resenting you, resenting daddy / And all that I can do is hope and hope and hope that the Lord will treat me / The way that I believe he treated you when you left this earth and body.” III
reaches its sonic peak on the penultimate ‘Supposed to Be’, which features ghastly, wispy ahh
’s in the introduction that blend into Devine’s most memorable verse/chorus combination, as well as a parting “I’m sorry” to his daughter, which is joined by some of Robert McDowell’s best guitar work (it’s a travesty that he hasn’t been mentioned more throughout this review). It’s an apology for his apathy, as well as for the world that she will one day inherit: “It's quiet, and I'm alone…I've exhausted my interest / And I'm sorry for the mess…to you for sure, or even more myself, most, I guess.”
That might have been the most heartbreaking moment on an album full of disillusionment and shattered hope, but only if it weren’t for the brutal closer, “Army.” Here we get a nine minute epic that details the spiraling downfall of a soldier who ends up committing suicide, and we witness every stage of his slide. Each stanza ends with a new low for him. At first it’s “there's nothing worse than losing your arm”, then, in reference to a return to his home life he sings “there’s nothing worse than losing your spine.” Near the end he breaks down with “nothing worse than losing your mind”, before the protagonist, represented in this case by Devine, sings “Drove out to the desert in your van / Drank some gasoline and made love to your hand / Cursed your God below for what he'd done / Before you sucked a bullet from your father's gun / There's nothing worse than losing your life
.” Bad Books continues their knack for silver linings however, ending the song – and entire album – with the affirming and inspiring “There's nothing wrong with being alive.” It’s a beautiful ending to an otherwise traumatizing and horrifyingly realistic account of war, along with the crippling, irreversible depression that it can cause.
There’s no way around it: III
is a masterpiece of modern indie folk. Bad Books have in every way lived up to the potential of a so-called “supergroup”, combining the best aspects of Andy Hull’s and Kevin Devine’s artistry, with help in no small part from Robert McDowell’s atmospheric guitar wizardry. The songs themselves are rich, lush, and flourishing – yet totally simplistic. The otherworldly vocals do as much as any instrument to contribute to an atmosphere that is hauntingly cold and distant, but able to burst through in waves of warmth and acceptance on a whim. Lyrically, III
ranges from contemporary and literal to symbolic and metaphysical, and just about every verse along the way reads like a famous existential quotation. This album, especially in the context of the group’s self-titled 2010 debut and 2012’s II
, is a testament to the growth of each individual in the band – both as musicians and as people. It’s an achievement in modern social-political commentary that is neither cliched nor preachy, as well as a triumph of the spirit – in both a literal and an ethereal sense. If God is goosebumps, then you can probably guess what I think of this album.