Bad Books
III


5.0
classic

Review

by SowingSeason STAFF
June 18th, 2019 | 224 replies


Release Date: 2019 | Tracklist

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.

III 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.

Again, III 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.




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user ratings (66)
Chart.
3.6
great

Comments:Add a Comment 
SowingSeason
Moderator
June 18th 2019


31503 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0 | Sound Off

Just when I thought nothing could top Copeland for AOTY...

Digging: Sum 41 - Order In Decline

Gyromania
June 18th 2019


27980 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

Copeland is your aoty? I should revisit it. Kinda just had it on in the background when I heard it. Pope was a standout though. Gotta check this out, damn.

neekafat
Contributing Reviewer
June 18th 2019


16402 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

the heck

Slex
Contributing Reviewer
June 18th 2019


7404 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

YES been waiting for this review haha

this album is so damn amazing

brb tho gonna actually read it now

Digging: Joliette - Luz Devora

Larkinhill
June 18th 2019


3147 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

Oh shit, this is that good? Was trying to decide which Bad Books album to get first (never listened to them before).



“. 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”



Holy shit, for real Sowing? Even better than Black Mile?! I assume this would be BB’s best album then? Ordering a copy now....



Great review man, really pulled me in and made me feel like I must hear this now lol. But trying not to think about the hype so I won’t be disappointed.



Slex
Contributing Reviewer
June 18th 2019


7404 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

the other 2 BB albums are very average-this is a transformative leveling up for the project

Larkinhill
June 18th 2019


3147 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

So this isn’t so much “rock” like MO I’m gathering? It’s ok either way, just trying to get a grasp.

Slex
Contributing Reviewer
June 18th 2019


7404 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

Nah it’s folksier for sure

Larkinhill
June 18th 2019


3147 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

the other 2 BB albums are very average-this is a transformative leveling up for the project



Damn. But I’ll check them out after this regardless.

SowingSeason
Moderator
June 18th 2019


31503 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0 | Sound Off

I feel this is pretty comparable to Tigers on Trains or Simon & Garfunkel. Definitely folk, not rock.



"Holy shit, for real Sowing? Even better than Black Mile?!"

Not necessarily, but it's on the same plane. It's like a stripped down Black Mile. Different style, same emotion.

Nbehre11
June 18th 2019


188 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

Ahhhh! I’ve been waiting for you to drop this review Sowing, beautifully written and the hype to listen is unreal. I’m waiting for my first listen to be on vinyl, and I can’t wait.



Again, thoroughly enjoyed reading this. Another great review sir.

Digging: The Dangerous Summer - Mother Nature

Rowan5215
Staff Reviewer
June 18th 2019


42197 Comments

Album Rating: 3.9 | Sound Off

y'all really think II is average? cmon, Pyotr is on the level of/better than anything here



so much for a 4.5 review sowing :D I'm glad every song got a mention here, the last four are incredible enough on their own and together that the less appealing parts of the remainder don't bother me as much. Lake House is a slam too

Digging: Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein - Stranger Things 3

Slex
Contributing Reviewer
June 18th 2019


7404 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

II is better than I for sure but still nothing special

SowingSeason
Moderator
June 18th 2019


31503 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0 | Sound Off

Thanks Nebehre! Excited for you to hear this. Should be pretty special on vinyl.



I don't think I or II are average in any way, they just don't live up to their potential quite like this does.

Rowan5215
Staff Reviewer
June 18th 2019


42197 Comments

Album Rating: 3.9 | Sound Off

II is fantastic.



the looping vocal and body percussion at the start of Myths Made Plain should go through the whole song, always bums me out that it doesn't

dmathias52
June 18th 2019


649 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

Well I know what’s next up on my queue. Not only does it sound like my type of music, but I love when artists take strong political stances (well certain strong political stances). Can’t wait to check it out!

Digging: Her Name Is Calla - Animal Choir

SowingSeason
Moderator
June 18th 2019


31503 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0 | Sound Off

While I wouldn't qualify this as a political album, there are certainly undertones. It's mostly the songs Devine wrote that state things plainly, Hull is a lot more coy about his intentions.

ProjectFreak
June 18th 2019


3773 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

well, this came out of nowhere. I've somehow never heard of this project but I clearly need to give it a spin. That was a mammoth review Sowing, but you've sold me on this. Wonderful work as always. Those lyrical excerpts look just crushing.

SowingSeason
Moderator
June 18th 2019


31503 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0 | Sound Off

Thanks Project, I definitely think my expounding upon the lyrics bloated the review. I just couldn't leave any of those passages out; the words on this record are so important. And yes, this has the emotional poignancy of Manchester Orchestra at their very best (albeit stripped down instrumentally). I can honestly say that this is one of the best folk albums I've heard in my lifetime, at least in my top 10. It truly elevates this project - as well as Hull and Devine individually - to a whole new level.

Larkinhill
June 18th 2019


3147 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

Tbh I’ve never really listened to folk music aside from a few folky songs here and there. I’m more of a hard rock guy. But I love Manchester/Hull and I trust Sowing.



Who knows? Maybe it’ll open a whole new genre for me.



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