Its rumored that Dave Grohl (unironically) once pushed Verbena as the next Nirvana. If Grohl never did actually say that, it wouldnt really matter because it seemed everyone else was saying it back in 1997. Cobain was dead, the legend already growing. Why not label them the next Led Zeppelin? The next The Beatles? Unless we are talking about LeBron James, labeling anyone or anything the next is the kiss of death. And so it was for Verbena. Three albums in, 2003 brought the passing of the band. Scott Bondy needed a new gig.
Bondy rested in the lull and emerged in 2007 as A.A. Bondy with American Hearts. Hailing from Alabama, it may seem foregone that a rootsier digression was in the cards for Bondy. Here was a Dylan-esque, Sourthern Gothic salvation and damnation record, however, press for the album noted that the subject matter bordered on caricature. Entertainment Weekly thought it slipped into cliché, and Pitchfork, noting its lyrical fascination with religion, thought it difficult to tell whether or not Bondy is sincere about his theological obsessions or if he’s just playing them out as musical device. Such are the pitfalls of making a record drawing from the Appalachian Mountains across to the Mississippi Delta. To speak of belief credibly, you must be a justified believer yourself — or at least one of the tragically damned.
Bondy may have taken the criticism to heart, or it may be that hes feeling more comfortable as a Southern songwriter; either way, When the Devils Loose (regardless of what the album title leads you to believe) doesnt repeat the mistakes of its predecessor. Bondy diffuses religious imagery warily and judiciously allows for a larger palette to pull from lyrically. There are vampires now. And Bondy uses inventive phrasing to continue to ask the big questions, notably on Mightiest of Guns, and also on said track Bondy reveals, You take the world and burn it in a spoon: a creative way of explaining lifes weight driving a man to substances. When the Devils Loose harbors its greatest strength in its lyrics. Daytrotter noted this back in 2008, obsessing over Bondys use of the color crimson, when they offered some of the first recorded versions of the songs that became When the Devils Loose.
Vocally, this new record is smooth (and eerily similar to the timbre of newbie Andy Shauf). Musically, the album is damn languorous, taking its sweet time to mosey through ten tracks. Played with a full band, some songs seem out of place. It certainly isnt the fault of the songs which ring melodious, but in spots, this should have been a sparser record. Its not hard to imagine Bondy under a large shade tree, barefoot, working a tune from his acoustic, taking time to tighten strings between songs. Theres just a bit too much spit-shine on tracks like The Mercy Wheel. A.A. Bondy sounds most earnest when its him and a guitar (or piano) and sleepy drumming. The exception to the rule is the closer The Coal Hits the Fire, a train song. Its not clear who it is exactly in the song thats bringing their dreams from far away to take a train ride (though this may be a reference to the mass immigration to the US at the turn of the century that saw tens of thousands gather at stations to migrate west), but the word choices and simplicity of the story are archetypal. As the song progresses, the volume swells and ferries the song to its conclusion as Bondy sings, Youre going round the sun, dont you know?
A.A. Bondy has found his voice on When the Devils Loose. He sounds comfortable as he drawls his way through one track after another. He hasnt learned to tell a story as outlandishly as Dylan, as mournfully as Williams, or as empathetically as Cash, but hes clearly growing in leaps and bounds. Walker Percy mightve donned headphones for such an album as this.