Confessional songwriting is really in right now. The more heartbreakingly raw, the better. Artists using songwriting as catharsis can be a very positive thing, especially when they haven’t been able to express their emotions elsewhere or when they’re singing about subject matters that aren’t often expressed in music.
But there’s a fine line between a shared healthy experience between artists and listeners and emotional vulnerability “porn,” where an artist’s struggles are feasted upon in public. Luckily, emotional fireworks can still be achieved without navigating this tricky line: Athens, Ga.-via-Brooklyn band Bambara employ fictional, character-based storytelling in their lyrics, and the humanity that each of us craves is just as prevalent in their non-autobiographical writing.
Bambara arrived in 2013 with their debut LP Dreamviolence, a lo-fi smoke bomb of noise punk where frontman Reid Bateh first wet his feet with this kind of songwriting. The songs were only loosely tied together, especially in comparison to their recent work, but dark descriptions like “stained teeth on the floor” and a man “shaped just like a dog” were already present. By 2018’s Shadow on Everything, Bambara were constructing post-punk songs like chapters of gothic literature, each serving a wider concept.
Their newest effort Stray sees them pushing even further. With inspiration from Bateh’s Georgia upbringing and a stack of thrift store photographs, the Bambara singer isolated himself for a month to write their new album. While Shadow on Everything placed Bateh in the story with events unfolding chronologically, Stray is more ambitious with third-person narratives and shuffled timelines snaking in and out of each other.
Imagine the types of skeevy characters who congregate in late-night alleyways, hop freight trains just for the rush and possess the hard-nosed stare of someone two decades their senior. These are the people who reside in the harsh, small-town Georgia where Stray takes place. While gold-chain-wearing scoundrels like these have been captured in literature and film for decades, Bateh makes them feel less tired with his engrossing descriptions and thoughtful braiding of storylines.
The villain of Stray is a rotund man who goes by the not-so-subtle nickname “Death,” and we’re clued in on his successful kills when he clutches mementos that belonged to his victims. On “Death Croons,” he shakes a glass of gold teeth, and we don’t find out until two songs later that they belong to the titular characters from “Ben and Lily.” Similarly, on “Sing Me to the Street,” we’re informed of Claire and Cole’s mortifying fate before we even meet them on the final track.
Bateh’s details place you right in the thick of things—almost so close that it’s chilling. You’re in the sleazy bar restroom where another character (and song) “Miracle” is admiring her inner lip tattoo as “spit crawls down her wrist” and in the car with Death as he sticks his hand out the window and rages at the first drop of rain (“Heat Lightning”). Images of a burning mill, a “yapping Shih Tzu riding shotgun,” lovers covered in ash and a machete “lodged in some young cop’s gut” all become easily palpable.
Bateh is a gifted storyteller. He knows when to pull punches, use charm and stick the knife in, and his foreshadowing is capable of putting you in a cold sweat. But occasionally, his lyrics are a mouthful, even when they’re compelling and serve the story. Bambara are most satisfying when Bateh has room to breathe and can fully lean into his forceful vocal performances, which accentuate the maniacal nature of his characters. His ferociousness on “Serafina” is not only magnetic, but it also emphasizes the nature of its joyfully reckless Bonnie and Clyde-like protagonists. On “Heat Lightning,” you can almost hear Death pound his meaty fist against the steering wheel when Bateh seethes about “those palm reading freaks.” Bateh’s sequencing is masterful, but take some of these songs out of the album’s broader context and many lose their steam. It’s not particularly kind to the casual listener either—this is an album for those fully committed to being a fly on the wall of this jet-black joyride. If you decide to tag along and follow all of Bateh’s carefully composed lines, you’ll be rewarded with a menacing, adrenaline-pumping ending to this bubbling narrative—the utterly grim, five-minute “Machete.”
Stray’s grisly fiction is positively spine-tingling, and their gothic post-punk underscores both its ominous, slow crawl and short-tempered fire. Bateh’s powerful huffing and rich speak-sing are a high point, and all of his best performances come on Bambara’s strongest songs. Stray is Bambara’s boldest work to date, and we can only imagine what bastards and damaged souls we’ll meet in their rearview mirror next.