Last War is immediately, unmistakably different than any record Haley Bonar‘s made before. Her catalogue is impressive: with ten releases in just ten years, and four full-lengths excluding the newest one, Bonar, pronounced bawn-er, has put a solid stake into her style of dark, quiet, vocal-heavy folk music. Her voice is cradle-rocking singalong, and she tends to end verses in extremely sad-sounding sustained notes that back the bleak lyrics of the lines she’s singing. On her sparsest album, 2006’s Lure The Fox, Bonar’s minimalism crosses over into what feels more like a live recording than anything laid down in a studio. String squeaks and between-verse breath exhalations creep onto the tracks; listening to it is like sitting in Bonar’s lap. That kind of microscopic access to Bonar’s vocal acrobatics is a treat, but interior minimalism piled on top of grim lyrics makes for a bit much of a muchness, and sometimes the bleaker extremes of Bonar’s early stuff drag her voice from prettily sorrowful into dour and self-indulgent.
Simply put, Last War is Bonar’s scuzziest record. In the pros column, the greater dose of reverb and percussion here rescues the album from any danger of turning weepy. In fact, she sounds sadder than she does pissed off, especially on early single “No Sensitive Man.” For them that would complain that her most acoustic stuff gets boring, Last War offers a more twisted take on Bonar’s alt-country licks and lullaby lonesomeness. On the other hand, I’m inclined to argue that shaking up the style comes at the expense of her voice, which still paints broad-brush singalong arcs and still hovers in a held note over the emotionally ripe ends of each verse, but is on this album less of a focal point. Bonar’s vocal line gets swept up along with the larger machine of grit and distortion on this album, and that really saps the liveliness that made her folk persona so remarkable in the first place.
Now, that isn’t true from cover to cover. Last week I criticized Bonar’s disparaging vocals on “No Sensitive Man” as bored-sounding: I really struggled with the way she brought lyrical themes of exasperation into her vocal lines, which ultimately weren’t any more likable than the feelings the song describes. But other tracks, like “Bad Reputation,” display a lot more complexity on both lyrical and musical fronts without letting go of Bonar’s large, flexible vocal range. “I got a bad reputation,” she sings on that track, “I probably need medication.” Baldly delivering grim sentiments in a pretty voice, Bonar finally seems to hit the right balance between showcasing her vocals and showing us her teeth.
Still, she’s ultimately a singer best appreciated under a microscope. This album represents several steps in the hookier direction for Bonar, but it’s still not a record that will necessarily grab you if you’re hearing it passively. That’s why I’m puzzled by so much of the noisier parts on this album, which aren’t as rewarding to an intimate listen as Bonar’s voice would be unadorned. She proves on this album that she can turn out a decent rocker, but with a songwriterly vision like the one she showed us on Golder in 2011, or the Sing With Me EP the year before that, why would Bonar want to? Compared to the intricacy of those albums, the reverb-y sections on Last War seem to water down the album more than they enhance it.