The story of one Auguste Arthur Bondy is a confounding one. Rarely do you see such a stylistic jump between the band that was brought someone to public consciousness and the one that keeps them there, but the folk ramblings under his own initialed name couldn’t be much further from the Nirvana-goes-south sounds of his original band Verbena. And though we’re years removed from the disbanding of this previous outfit, any exploration of a new Bondy record has to be filtered through this previous work if only for the case of comparison. As the move from American Hearts to When The Devil’s Loose represented an expansion of his sound from folky ballads to, well, more open folky ballads, so the shift to Believers represents a further shift toward the style of his former band; if not in sound then in a depth in songwriting mostly absent from his earlier homogenous works.
Given the drastic rebranding from post-grunge frontman to Dylan-esque troubadour, it would be easy to accuse Bondy of inauthenticity on his solo work, but his songwriting brings an earnestness that defies all claims of trend jumping or unoriginality. Even from his earliest effort, 2007’s American Hearts, this much was true. We’re able to forgive the musical retreads of songs like “Vice Rag” because of the seeming honesty of the lyrics. This most recent effort, however, has a few key distinctions from the earlier material, despite being obviously based in the same styles. Most obviously, unlike, When The Devil’s Loose, there’s much more of a focus on ambience, and less a focus on the hooky aspects of the songs. There isn’t a “Mightiest of Guns” or a “Rapture (Sweet Rapture)” here, but what stands in the place of these obvious standout tracks is a more fully formed album than Bondy has put out to date. Although there isn’t a single mindblowing track on all of Believers, it’s certainly more rewarding as a full effort. “The Heart Is Willing” sets up the apocalyptic vibe that Bondy has been striving for his whole career, but has only really touched to date in live shows. That mood certainly is felt throughout Believers, and though it was his earliest work that touched most heavily on themes of religion and redemption, it’s songs like “Highway/Fevers” that sound like they might properly soundtrack a literal rapture.
Where Bondy previously sounded like an apologetic believer, he now sounds like a man possessed by his impending end, and surprising it comes off as less of an affectation that earlier incarnations have. In this new material, with songs like “The Twist,” where he’s allowed to let his darker, deeper side shine, he sounds so much more at home. It might not be as rewarding on first listen, but Believers is certainly Bondy’s greatest whole achievement to this point. It promises even better material to come if he can blend the astounding songcraft from earlier efforts with the atmosphere of this album.