Baggage Room Records (label)
30 July 2020 (released)
12 September 2020
When it comes to singer-songwriter types, they can tend to be a little self-obsessed. Their songs concern their own trappings and how the actions of others have affected their own standing. It's often an exercise in narcissism. Furthermore, there is a massive surplus of writers delving into this subject matter with widely varying degrees of success. There's a tremendous tune from English Edwardian songsmith Captain of the Lost Waves concerning that very subject. He proclaims: “Danger! Danger! Here on planet Earth/There's a singer-songwriter epidemic and they claim it's getting worse/We cannot move for heartfelt lyrics/Soft and sweet indulgent gimmicks/The song would be over but there not enough of me yet in it!”. The idea of the acoustic guitar brandishing singer-songwriter is somewhat exhausted in 2020. However, if an artist can release themselves from that self-indulgent trap, there is wide open space to find creatively rich territory.
With the American Bardo album, Northern California singer Eric Anders and Southern California guitarist Mark O'Bitz have shattered that detrimental mould opting to pursue the fruitful endeavour of a concept album. That tool made famous by arena-bound classic and progressive rock acts. Rather than nattering on about himself, Anders chose to go the empathetic route of envisioning himself as different characters to write the record. The focal point of this collection is the 2017 novel Lincoln in the Bardo about President Lincoln losing his son and the grief-bound events surrounding that. The story takes place over the course of a single evening, is set in the bardo—an intermediate space between life and rebirth. Anders songs are each an imagining from a different character's perspective which gives the album a depth of story beyond other albums in the genre, yet the tracks remain intensely personal. O'Bitz's guitar has a sleepy-dreamy quality to it adding to the inherently surreal nature of the tale.
The songs can often have morbid implications, it was reported from several sources that Lincoln would enter the crypts late at night and hold his dead son. This graveyard aura pervades the record. 'Matterbloomlight (Revisited)' sits on a groove of sauntering guitar and minimalist drums echoing off into the ether. Anders emotive voice takes on the heartache of this tremendous loss and tries to make sense of it in words. Angelic choral vocals drift in near the end to carry the track off into the beyond. 'Bury Me' with it's gracefully picked acoustic guitar and mournful strings is instantly transportive to the civil war era. Reverb ghosts over exasperated minor chords give an anchor's weight to Anders resigned, dark lyrics.
'Old Theory of Love' picks the album back up from the gravity of death with a steady backbeat over a warmly resolving piano chord progression. Anders bellow melts into O'Bitz's woozy guitar. 'Haunting Abraham' also shares this anthemic backbeat with an investigation of the pain-inflicting the already incredibly burdened leader. The track investigates the theme that “Freedom isn't free”. Final lessons are learned with the concluding pair of the organ padded 'Bardo Cons' and the assess the damage finale 'Won't Live It Down'.
For an album with such dark subject matter and heavy-hearted melodies, it's hard to imagine it as a hopeful experience. However, that glow is found throughout the album. The hope that both a person and a nation can live on after such a large part has died. We are living in an era of grief, violence, and vitriol but we have been here before and America has survived to tell the story. These tales both personal and national are the legacy of a civilization. Anders and O'Bitz do a remarkable job of translating this into a concept album.