"Killed myself when I was young/with my fingers on the poison gun/'cause I had to come back new," sings A.A. Bondy on his debut solo record, American Hearts. It's a statement of rebirth and abandonment of the past, of the artistic need to completely burn one's self to cinders in order to rise again.
"Andy Warhol said, 'Make art, and while people are deciding what that art is, make more art,'" says A.A. Bondy, who might be better known as Scott Bondy, frontman for the late '90s post-grunge act Verbena. That band scored a minor hit in '99 with the aggressive, snarling "Baby Got Shot," which was produced by Dave Grohl, but when Verbena disintegrated in 2003, it wasn't immediately clear to Bondy what to do next. "After making records for big corporations, I kind of lost my compass," he explains. "Then I was like, 'Do I want to do this? And if I do? Why and how do I want to do it?'"
American Hearts was recorded by Bondy in his barn in upstate New York. It's a somber, sparse affair, with mostly acoustic guitars and occasional percussion. Finger-picking folk tunes like "Witness Blues" and "Black Rain, Black Rain" sound both timeless and exquisitely personal; one can almost see the frost on the windows and smell the smoke coming from the wood stove. "That's just a weird winter document, that record. I had no intention for it to come out. Well, I did, but I didn't make it thinking it was going to be in a record store at some point."
Vivid biblical imagery and statements of devotional love appear throughout the album, but like the work of Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen, or even tour mate and fellow woodshedder Bon Iver, it defies pigeonholing into the religious genre. In fact, if anything, the songs are defiantly secular, although in the tradition of American gospel and blues where god and the devil were at the forefront of everyday struggles.
"In certain parts of the country, if you touch on religious themes at all, people react to it in markedly different ways," says Bondy. "I remember seeing this thing that said I was a born-again Christian. The notion that one could be writing from a different place or with a different voice is kind of lost. You have to be really literal about it now, or preface it with something: My name is not this, my name is this."
By releasing American Hearts under his birth name of A.A. Bondy instead of the already-established Scott Bondy moniker, he provides distance from the past and removes the context of what came before. And it's a remarkable reinvention. American Hearts is one of the best singer/songwriter albums in recent memory, reminiscent of the delightful shock when Ryan Adams popped up with Heartbreaker after quitting Whiskeytown. Bondy's tunes are never abrasive, but always guided with a firm and steady hand; the graceful and generous melodies are sung with a gentle, smoky voice.
"It's like panning for gold or something," says Bondy of songwriting. "It seems like I get bursts of finishing things and then it gets dark again for a while. If you have a block of marble, it is going to be one thing; if you have planks of wood, it is going to be one thing. Given the tools I had at the time, this record is what happened. There were probably choices to be made, but many of them seem like they were made for me."