There may be no better depiction of the exasperating dynamics among loved ones than the way Eric Bachmann puts it on “Mercy,” the second song on his new solo album. “I’ve got family, I’ve got friends/ And I will love them till the end,” he sings. “Despite the batshit-crazy things they often say.” Yep.
The song is a lush doo-wop number with resonant piano, a big beat and layers of background vocals bolstering Bachmann’s rich baritone. It would be the centerpiece of the album, if the other tunes weren’t just as powerful. But they are, as Bachmann embarks on the third phase of a career that dates back more than two decades. He started out as one-quarter of the proudly abrasive indie-rockers Archers of Loaf and, when that group broke up in 1998, he gave voice to his subtler, more tuneful side as the mastermind and sole continuous member of Crooked Fingers.
Now he’s just Eric Bachmann. Though he’s released music under his own name before, interspersed among the other projects, Eric Bachmann feels like the start of something new. These nine songs are among the most intimate he’s written, with lyrics by turns blunt and delicate, underpinned with the candor you’d expect from an old friend given to straight talk. In addition to savaging the platitude that everything happens for a reason on “Mercy,” Bachmann seems to address social injustice on “Masters of the Deal,” bemoaning that lives become collateral damage as big shots commit “the slow crime of the century.” Though the imagery of illness is a theme on the album, with mention of IVs and hospital stays, there’s also plenty of poetic beauty: opener “Belong to You” finds ardor cooling along with the embers of a fire on the beach, while a slow, circular piano part lands “Dreaming” somewhere between naturalistic reverie and lullaby.
Bachmann wrote most of these songs on piano, rather than guitar, and the different approach suits his vocals. The singer has changed the way he uses his voice over the years, and what was often a (purposely) strangled yelp in the Archers of Loaf days has become a warmer and more nuanced instrument capable of deeply expressive moments. On “Belong to You,” he sings as though waking from a dream he wants not to fade, the hazy quality of half-remembered scenes enhanced by steel guitar from Jon Rauhouse. He’s matter-of-fact in a kindly, empathetic way on “Modern Drugs,” takes on a bemused woe-is-me tone on “Separation Fright” and turns a few simple lines into a sweeping epic over rolling piano on “Carolina,” written by wife Liz Durrett.
What’s perhaps most impressive about Eric Bachmann is where the album falls in the arc of his career. It’s his 19th release since 1993. Few artists manage to get that far, and many of those who do have long since become calcified in terms of style and subject matter. By contrast, Bachmann sounds like he’s just getting started.