CERTAIN NOTES flicker like neon signs, while others pulse steady like streetlights. What chords you can make out are scarcely there, ragged bones on which to frame these desolate songs. The guitars don't lurch or chime or strum; the drums don't force the beat into your brain. Rather, you have to crawl at least part of the way into the tunnel of sound that is A.A. Bondy's third solo album, Believers. You have to put yourself into it before you can dig your way out of it.
More so than Bondy's first two records, Believers is after-hours music. It's the sound you hear long after all sensible people have put themselves to bed. "I just wanted to get across this drifting feeling. Not lost or found," Bondy says. "I felt unmoored for a lot of the period that this record was written. I think it shows."
The singer/songwriter—known as Scott Bondy for the first part of his career—is a long way from his days as frontman for rough-and-tumble Birmingham, Alabama, rock band Verbana, which released albums on Capitol Records, one of which was produced by Dave Grohl. Bondy made a clean break in 2007 with the release of his first solo record under the A.A. Bondy aegis, American Hearts. It was a stark, acoustic-driven record of gospel-folk helmed by Bondy's preternaturally calm singing and gorgeously exposed songwriting.
2009's When the Devil's Loose was even warmer, filled with hushed, churchlike tones and sumptuous songs that felt like healing the ragged pieces of a busted heart. Following that development, Believers contains perhaps the clearest iteration of the late-night soul inherent in Bondy's songwriting, in the form of the lovely, rise-and-fall chord structure of "Surfer King," which slows down the verse of Smokey Robinson's "Tracks of My Tears" to a ghostly, meditative pace. But the rest of Believers is a departure for Bondy, forgoing the flecks of folk and Americana that characterized his previous solo work. In their place are haunting echoes, street-noir synths, glistening Daniel Lanois-like ambience, and the sound of complete and utter ambivalence—the bleary feeling in which one knows a life change is needed, but is too tired and too broken to make it.
Oddly enough, the intense introspection of Believers is actually the result of one of Bondy's most collaborative recording periods. For the first time in his solo career, he worked with an outside producer: Rob Schnapf. Bondy also worked closely with drummer Ben Lester and bassist Macey Taylor. "We're a band and not a band. I like it that way," say Bondy. "We tried to get as much down live and at the same time as possible. I feel like that's the best way to get down this kind of music. The singing is better when it goes on at the same time, too. The whole thing feels like a long-exposure photograph that way. It feels more alive and on the line as well."
It's a marked change for Bondy—for example, American Hearts was recorded largely by himself in a barn in upstate New York, without the idea that anyone would hear it. That kind of retreat is something that Bondy looks forward to doing again. "This record was a lot harder than the previous two," he admits. "Sometimes I forget lessons I learned, and it's best for me to just shut everyone out when I'm working. But that is harder to do when you've worked with people for a while. I think I'll go back into the dark next time around."