Bad Books return with their first new album in seven years, III — which ushers in a new era of the band featuring principal members Andy Hull and Robert McDowell, both of Manchester Orchestra, and Kevin Devine.
When Bad Books made a surprise appearance at this year’s SXSW armed with an entire album’s worth of new songs, the music world took notice. Those who were there bore witness to what Hull calls their new “Simon and Garfunkel in space” style — sparse structures, simple harmonies, and gorgeous sonic embellishments. But considering both their inter-personal dynamics and joyful congregation, perhaps it would be more accurate to refer to the 2019 version of Bad Books as “Simon and Garfunkel as true friends.” III doesn’t exactly pick up where their previous work left off, but rather takes a new approach to redefine Bad Books and to re-tally the sum of their parts.
They gathered again in February of 2018 to open the sonic time capsule and reexamine their work. McDowell led the charge of injecting the songs with texture and atmosphere. The decision to throw out a traditional rhythm section in favor of an organ and foot pedals as the low-end presented a new set of challenges, but McDowell saw it as an opportunity rather than a restriction. The stripped-back nature of the work also provided an opportunity to build subtle production onto the songs’ foundations; adding piano, string arrangements, and even fuzzed-out electric guitar, the trio filled the spaces without overpowering any of the songwriting. Upon the album’s near-completion, they handed the reins to producer Ethan Gruska (Phoebe Bridgers) and mixer Catherine Marks (PJ Harvey, The Killers) for final “magic sprinkling.” The result is a complete cinematic landscape on par with the peaks of Manchester Orchestra’s past work, but with the sly subtlety of Devine’s output—This is ground control to Majors Paul and Art.