Reviewing Sons of Bill’s new record.

sobA couple of years ago, The New Yorker asked “Whatever happened to movies for grownups?” It’s an important question, and one that has only become more pronounced since David Denby posed it, and not just at the multiplex. In fact, nowhere does it apply more than to the carcass that passes for commercial rock and roll these days. There may have been a time when literacy and restraint didn’t automatically throw you into a niche market, but that time seems to have gone, for better or worse. Which isn’t to say there’s anything wrong with the kid stuff, per se–the trappings of youth are written into rock’s DNA after all–just that, looking at the charts, you’d be surprised to learn that a six-string can convey non-teenage themes and emotions.

Fortunately, Sons of Bill have always been reckless when it comes to fashion, if not openly antagonistic. The Virginia band released their first full-length in 2006, a collection of raucous barroom anthems known as A Far Cry From Freedom, before embracing their more gothic leanings on 2009’s exquisitely crafted One Town Away. Then in 2012, SoB unleashed Sirens, a record of articulate, subversive arena rock that managed to be both sad and triumphant at the same time.

Their new album, Love & Logic, dropped last week, and it marks another bold step forward. Many of the group’s hallmarks are still there: the deceptively smart songwriting, the beautiful singing (and guitar!), the unforced masculinity, the sensibility that splits the difference between William Faulkner, Paul Westerberg, and Billy Joe Shaver, etc. However, this is not Sirens Vol 2, nowhere close. Producer Ken Coomer (formerly of Wilco) has pushed the guys in a number of surprising directions and expanded their sonic palette considerably. Fans of SoB’s trad leanings be warned: they’re wearing their affinity for 80s college rock on their sleeves a bit more, and unless I’m mistaken, Leonard Cohen has made his way into the mix.

But the main difference this time around is how, well, adult it sounds. If only the word “adult” wasn’t so degraded when it comes to music. It tends to conjure up either “boring” or “predictable”, neither of which remotely apply here. What I mean is that the listener has to do a bit more work on this record–the tempos are more relaxed, the structures and melodies less conventional–but the result may be their richest outing yet. The courage to go quieter may also mark it, oddly enough, as their most transgressive and dare-I-say rock n roll gesture to date (Abe Wilson isn’t joking when he sings about “giving the finger to the spirit of the age” on “Brand New Paradigm”).

That said, the shift in mood would be a dicier move had the guys not come up with such stunning material. The compositions–shared almost equally among the three Wilson brothers (James, Abe, and Sam)–are full of unexpected flourishes and left turns, the hallmark of a band that is confident (or disillusioned) enough to take nothing but chances. They could have easily repeated themselves, but then they wouldn’t be the band they are, ptL. Restraint is a lot harder than its opposite, and these guys have never gone easy on themselves.

The shuffling “Big Unknown” sets the tone with what sounds like a travelogue but is really more of a mission statement. The brothers trade verses as the song builds to a glorious climax of ba-ba-bada-ba’s, making it clear from the start that we’re in fresh sonic territory. Settling into the “big unknown” may be a sideways allusion to the Logos, or it may be their way of talking about acquiescence, or displacement, or death, or all of the above. Whatever the case, Love and Logic is positively soaked with these most grown-up of themes. What happens when our attempts to control our lives (and ourselves) have run their course? When idealism has faded and youth with it? After the dream of ‘making it’ (in an industry that no longer exists) has died? What is left? That is what these ten tracks deal with, and in the only way Sons of Bill know how: honestly. So there are songs of resignation (“Light a Light”), songs of retreat (“The Fishing Song”), restlessness (“Road to Canaan”), even suicide (“Lost in the Cosmos”). That last one doubles as a tribute to Big Star’s long deceased Chris Bell–a group with whom SoB shares an all-too-rare bond as fellow musical representatives of the erudite, God-haunted South.

“Lost in the Cosmos” is a stone-cold classic, the record’s undeniable centerpiece, and perhaps the band’s single greatest achievement. Just listen to the catharsis they summon in the final instrumental passage, or the way they allow the unorthodox structure of the song to unfold–they don’t force it down your throat, and the effect is profound. It is a mature recording to say the least, one that rewards repeat listens. Elsewhere, the Type B’s of the world finally get the anthem they deserve with the (ironically) rousing kiss-off, “Brand New Paradigm”, also the band’s poppiest foray to date, complete with fantastic backing vocals (they really outdo themselves in that department on L&L). Then, with deep empathy and maybe a little comeuppance, the infectious “Bad Dancer” hails the wallflowers and outsiders, the freaks and geeks who make “the best lovers”. Over a kitchen-sink arrangement, James Wilson references a potent and not at all arbitrary triumvirate: R.E.M., Dukes of Hazard, and The Odyssey. It’s a fantastic single.

Speaking of R.E.M., if “Arms of a Landslide” doesn’t bring that band to mind, you’re probably not listening. I’d call it “the best song R.E.M. never wrote” if I thought the Athens stalwarts would have attempted a bridge as gutsy and gorgeous as SoB do here. Another obvious single and alternate universe smash hit. And yet, as stylistic of a departure as it may be, the chorus anchors the song to the record: “I can’t afford to fly, so I’ll throw myself into the arms of a landslide” captures the contradiction of what AAs (aka friends of Bill) call ‘the spiritual life’ perfectly. Surrender is seldom a contrived or voluntary act; it is by definition distinct from the bitter pill of religious piety and the hollow self-justifications of pop psychology. And yet, what feels terrifying and overwhelming and impersonal–a landslide–may in fact be the arms of providence. Meanwhile, the bouncy, playful arrangement makes a convincing case that grown-up does not equal joyless.

The album closes with the exquisite “Hymnsong”, which contains what may be most sublime poetry the brothers have put on tape. The title is no red herring. The acquiescence explored throughout has, in the face of mortality, taken on an appropriately spiritual aspect. It has turned into something that can only be called faith. Sober, reticent, mustard-seed faith, but faith nonetheless. The final stanza is too moving not to reproduce. It ends the record, and this review, on a note that sums up much of what makes the band, and its latest release, so true and courageous and beautiful:

We’re convinced that there’s a cadence to the murmurs in the dark
Rapt in patient arbitration between our weary head and heart
Until our spirits cease their raging in the silence of the night
We will look for love and logic in the dying of the light

Amen. Now back to the big unknown.