This year, y’all.
This bafflingly, uncompromisingly bad year affects the mind in strange ways.
Sometimes the synapses spark ineffectively through sludge. Sometimes the sense of defeat is overwhelming, inescapable. And sometimes one is overcome by a sort of punch-drunk giddiness — a skittering, not-quite-unpleasant nihilistic fugue that hits after reality refuses to follow its own rules one too many times.
Am I hallucinating this entire goddamn thing? Can I even trust my senses?
Or, “I heard it on the news / a version of the truth / was it fact-packed or fiction and fable,” as Ed Jurdi chants on The Band of Heathens’ “Today is Our Last Tomorrow.” The lead single from new album Stranger careens dementedly forward like late-Beatles Lennon stomping and kicking his way through a china shop, anchored by an almost blasé pre-chorus of “yesterday was good / wouldn’t change it if I could / today is our last tomorrow.”
It’d be easy to call these Austin Americana-plus mainstays’ latest record prescient, but that’s merely one way of saying Stranger is an album written by people baffled by a weird era that simply got weirder and bleaker since the tunes were put to tape. The Band of Heathens’ latest isn’t uniformly potent (“Dare” is a tad forgettable) or necessarily woke (what’s with Trump riding Obama’s shoulders in the “Today is Our Last Tomorrow” video?); rather, and appropriate to its Camus-derived name, Stranger is a record about bafflement and the absurd.
See, Camus’ Meursault was a character with almost zero agency, steered from situation to situation by little more than chance and acquiescence. Like Meursault, The Band of Heathens have landed in a disastrous, doom-heavy now and are as bewildered as any of us.
“We got used to the feeling / of being used and believing,” goes the poignant chorus to “Truth Left.” “We got used to the feeling but we just can’t take any more.” The smoky, midtempo psych-rock tune addresses social media, misinformation, and the left and right’s inability to communicate. Yet it never takes a stance.
Granted, Stranger isn’t exclusively a WTF 2020 record: “Black Cat” is a swampy blues-rock folk tale while “Asheville Nashville Austin” is jam-educated good-times Southern Americana. “Call Me Gilded” and “Before the Day is Done” are delicate and personal.
The songs that do address the disastrous now do so in an overwhelmed, almost political, almost incisive fashion. If there is a message here, it’s that something in the world is very broken. Stranger is not protest music, but there’s honesty in the album’s inherent confusion.