For a musician who appears to be in a constant state of flux, a record as consistent and memorable as Breaks In the Armor is nothing if not an unqualified triumph. After writing a batch of songs during self-imposed musical exile in Taiwan, Eric Bachmann kept what became Crooked Fingers’ sixth full-length in his back pocket, meanwhile reuniting Archers of Loaf for a smattering of shows (and an upcoming tour).
If it were restlessness or a desire for a more assertive sound that drove Bachmann to reconvene the iconic slacker-rock band, the same boldness informs Breaks In the Armor, albeit tempered by a mature lyrical sensibility and a heavy dose of doomsaying, sure to satisfy romantic idealism and hipster schadenfreude alike. Although the simpler moments recall Neil Young-levels of earnestness, most of the album is shot through with the (somewhat) modern equivalents of Tom Waits’ dark vignettes of Americana.
“Black Candles” begins with a tonally ambiguous intro before launching into an exercise in gothic honky-tonk that works better than it sounds like it would, except for the prosaic hook, “black candles burning in the kerosine rain.” “Went to the City” is propelled by a Spoon-like spare rhythmic drive and a chunky eighth-note piano motor that gets repeated a few tracks later in “She Tows the Line.”
But the last three tracks are definitely the strongest chunk of a thoroughly consistent album. “War Horses” is, I think, the album’s centerpiece, similar to the way “So Come Back, I am Waiting” blew Black Sheep Boy way out of the confines of its bildungsroman narrative. An anthemic, slowed-down number with a very strange mood that I can only describe as hopeless solidarity, it begins by “holding hands at the border,” then crescendos to stop-time chords that don’t feel like chords so much as volleys from a firing squad: “Bracing for all hell/ For the century will shoot us down/ Breaks in the armor/ It’s too much for us to turn back now.”
And when the smoke clears, we’re brought to the brilliant, encompassing “She Tows the Line.” It begins with a Springsteen-esque encapsulation of a girl sitting by the arcade anonymously getting high and gives way to more universal insights about being forgotten: “We’ll rise and we’ll go/ So they never know/ We even came here at all.” And to stay on the Springsteen kick for a sec, if The Boss was an evangelist for all the open-road aspirations of New Jersey youth, Bachmann is the philosopher king returned to the Cave with nothing but brokenhearted insights. He invites us to “Come here and count the times/ We’ve been leaving” and derides the impulsive youth heading out for a night on the town “like they all have some place to go.”
Whether intentionally or simply a product of the songwriting process, there are a few internal parallelisms that reward multiple listenings. Elements of “Heavy Hours” are reprised in “Our New Favorite,” a slice of Nebraska-like sparseness and beauty. But there’s a certain timeliness in his accusations of “A scam of scandals/ Housed in empty contraband/ Such a sad shame/ We got nothing for their slaughter.”
Other reviewers have commented on the album’s impeccable sequencing, and they’re totally right. After “War Horses,” the last two tracks are a perfect denouement that recall earlier tracks but don’t retread any musical ground. Breaks In the Armor ranks among the best Crooked Fingers albums. But constructing a web of associations — really the stock-in-trade of critics — between Bachmann’s other work, music in general, politics, The State of Art, or some other conceit can only go so far. Arrogant as this undoubtedly sounds, I felt like I deserved this album. As someone who cares about music, who flatters himself to think that he has a pulse on new things, it’s a joy to encounter something that feels so whole, both in itself and in how perfectly it fills that little void I never knew was there.