"When you're out drinking on your own, heartaches from the past feel overblown," Memphis songwriter Harlan T. Bobo croons on "Sweet Life," the lead song on his third album, Sucker , set to be released by the local Goner Records label on April 16th.
Bobo might be referencing his now-classic debut album, Too Much Love , with those lines — or, more likely, the life experiences that spurred that album. The lyrical assertion feels like wisdom, and Bobo's three albums form a perhaps unintentional trilogy that builds to the romantic contentment Sucker embodies.
Known for extravagant, creative live shows — he's performed with self-built staging that functions in 3-D and even replicated the Garden of Eden, among other conceits — Bobo has been protective of his somewhat mysterious persona. The "Bobo" name is not his own, borrowed from the ex who inspired Too Much Love . And though he was a participant in director Craig Brewer's MTV-financed $5 Cover series, Bobo was wary of the corporate attention. For his documentary segment as part of the $5 Cover companion material, he demanded a strong degree of control and declined to appear on camera as a direct subject.
But whatever artifice and honest distance has gone into his persona, Bobo's music is direct, nakedly personal, and easy to embrace.
An established sideman in Memphis bands, most notably the glam/garage band American Deathray (a group that went through various name changes), Bobo stepped out on his own in 2005 with the self-released Too Much Love (given a national release the following year by Goner), an album that took the local music scene by surprise.
Too Much Love is an accessible but unnervingly intimate collection of songs tracking one delicate but troubled romance. And its highlights soar: the odd, unnerving "Left Your Door Unlocked," where the lovestruck protagonist takes a nap on his muse's bed while she's out with another guy; the early rock-and-roll-via-Lou Reed spoken-word vocals on "Stop"; the whistling wistfulness of "When You Comin' Home?"; and the honky-tonk-meets-Dylan heartstopper "Bottle and Hotel."
It was a tough debut to top, and Bobo, much to his credit, didn't respond with an attempt at "Too Much Love 2." If his debut was often brilliant, it also contained a strain of boozy romanticism that went down a little too easy. Bobo's follow-up, 2007's I'm Your Man , was a braver, pricklier, funnier record that seemed to be partly rooted in honest doubts about his debut's appeal.
On the black-comic "My Life," he mused about a failed relationship that predated Too Much Love 's inspiration, some harsh words from his father ("My father said to me, 'It's a dog eat dog world. You're the type that gets eaten.'"), and his desire for "a family and home," before taking stock of his own role in his discontent: "I don't do the things I should, to make my life good." He yearned for a "Pragmatic Woman" to turn things around, and on "So Bad," daydreamed longingly of building a family, as if time had run out on that proposition.
Apparently it hadn't, as Sucker — its title joyfully tongue-in-cheek — seems to be inspired by the courtship that led to Bobo's new wife and son. As such, the album completes a personal and musical journey begun with the lovelorn Too Much Love .
Fittingly, the tone here is lighter, if not without complication. The subtly orchestral "Sweet Life" has a cinematic quality. It's a sunrise of a song that establishes the mood of the entire album: "I've held delicious taste on my tongue/Held precious kisses in my hand/It took so so long to understand/Life is sweet," Bobo sings to open the album. This statement of purpose finds contentment in specific, telling images: a band of gold, a woman's dark hair across the singer's chest.
Musically, Sucker 's rootsy diversity is daring but understated enough to not feel like he is overreaching: There's a nice blend of swooning early rock/soul ("Hamster in a Cage"), locomotive country-rock ("Crazy Loneliness"), carnivalesque pop ("Perfect Day"), nimble garage rock ("Bad Boyfriends"), folk-rock reverie ("Errand Girl") and even an offering of Paris café music and Beatlesque pop ("Mlle. Chatte"). But despite the range,, it all still sounds of apiece.
What unites the music is a playful but settled mood of contentment. Against a bed of sha-la-la-la-la background vocals and saloon piano on "Perfect Day," Bobo acknowledges that "it's so nice not to be alone," while promising his new love that "you and I can get to be phantoms from our deepest dreams."
Even on "Crazy Loneliness," which opens with the sound of a rotary phone dialing, Bobo operates on the certainty that the titular feeling can be abated by contact with the "dear" to whom the song is addressed. Peace is only a phone call away.
Sucker is Bobo's shortest album yet, clocking in at 12 songs in less than 30 minutes. This makes the penultimate "Drank" feel even longer than its 5:32 running time (the only song on the album that tops three minutes). It's a drinking song, but not of the tear-in-your-beer variety. It's a specific, unabashedly personal, but still impressionistic portrait of a meet-cute that evolves into more.
Delivered in hushed vocals that build to a clattering instrumental conclusion, it seems to recount Bobo's first meeting with the song's subject: "Carried me back to the party/Filled our pockets with bottles of gin/Asked you to show me the ocean/You said, 'I hope you can swim'." The song, which references a "slippery past" and an "uncertain future," is all about diving in, capping Bobo's three-album journey on a hard-earned happy note.