Ward White’s new album, Bob, is a suspense film waiting to happen. White has made a career out of slashingly literary janglerock and chamber pop for over a decade: to call this surreallistically menacing concept album his best yet would be a disservice to brilliant earlier releases like 2007′s Maybe but Probably Not and his 2009 collaboration with keyboard maven Joe McGinty, McGinty and White Sing Selections from the McGinty and White Songbook. This new one is his most literary yet, a nonlinear narrative that may be about drug trafficking, white-collar crime, several murders and the apocalypse, a combination of all or some of the above. It is an engrossing story that is impossible to turn away from, best appreciated not as individual songs but as an integral suite.
Musically, it’s White at the top of his game as a satirist. While many of the songs are attractive, Bacharach-esque bossa-pop spiced with Jeff Hermanson’s tasteful trumpet, others veer closer to parody, toying with vaguely bluesy 70s radio pop and 80s power balladry. White’s a great guitarist and adds a handful of long-winded solos that hint at raw cheese everywhere. Yet he teases the listener, only crossing that line when it’s time to go straight for bigtime laughs, as in a ridiculously funny, cruel vocoder interlude midway through that’s straight out of Midnight Starr circa 1983.
Likewise, White’s storyline is a nonstop barrage of calamities including but not limited to a plane crash, a disastrous pandemic, possible starvation, cannibalism, a dirty deal gone drastically awry and a potential murder-suicide, its doomed arc interrupted by what seem to be flashbacks. There are at least two voices here, possibly more, possibly different sides of a single personality. There’s a bossy corporate type whose clueless sense of entitlement White absolutely nails – one moment he’s telling somebody to stay the hell away from his woodpile, the next he’s cajoling that same person to put down the gun. There’s also a guy whose druggie wife is divorcing him but seems to be planning a far quicker and more conclusive final break. The Bob in the title is addressed several times – he may be the only survivor here – and is referenced throughout, bitterly, but never speaks for himself. The author whose work this most closely evokes is Russell Banks.
White gets the story rolling with a bang: “I’ve suffered too much to give in to gravity, I hit the ground; I saw my chance to escape so I did… Bob, you’re an expert, survive on my blood as long as you can and I’ll see you in hell,” instructs the bossy type over sarcastically attractive. anthemic 6/8 rock, White reaching falsetto altitude, part Jeff Buckley, part Broadwayesque sneer. Even as the end seems to be closing in, this is as close to human as the character gets. White ups the Broadway factor with some impressively nimble vocal acrobatics on the first of what seem to be the flashbacks, the trumpet in tandem with McGinty’s keys wry and deadpan behind the marriage-gone-to-hell tableau.
Not all the music here is satirical. While none of the songs follow a standard verse/chorus format, often shifting from gentle pop to hard-edged rock to ornate chamber pop like jump cuts, White occasionally drops the veil and goes straight for menace. That’s how the third track begins, as does the final interlude, its desperate protagonist encouraging an unnamed conspirator to join him at his little hideout cabin: they can just disappear and leave a note on the front door for Bob, he suggests.
White’s laserlike sense for the mot juste is in full effect, as usual: “You won’t feel the impact, so savor the fall,” the wronged husband tells his soon-to-be-ex. “Fences make good neighbors, and there’s no fence that I can’t crawl through,” the character guarding his precious woodpile tells the man with the gun. The tension is relentless, “Waiting in the cupboard, waiting by the bedside, waiting on the street where I walk, waiting in the headlines, waiting in the subtext, waiting in the things that I can’t talk about,” wails the bossy type.
As the story reaches fever pitch, memories of Hollywood shenanigans sit side by side with the conspirators holed up and running low on pretty much everything. There is at least one death, possibly a murder, possibly more. As the narrative peaks, hallucinations set in and eventually oscillate out sarcastically, possibly an allusions to the plane crash – or whatever it may be, metaphorical or not – that opens the album. Years from now, assuming that pause and rewind still exist, listeners will be pausing and rewinding this over and over to figure out who dies, who survives here and what the hell White is talking about the rest of the time. In the meantime, you have the opportunity to do the same with a genuine one-of-a-kind classic. Look for an album release show sometime later in the winter or early spring.