Once Defined by Tumult, Bombadil’s Folk-Pop Now Heads Steadily Into the Future

[Free Times]

By Jordan Lawrence

Perhaps the only surprising thing about Bombadil’s last three years is there haven’t really been any surprises. Throughout the life of the sprightly, deep-feeling Durham, North Carolina-based folk-pop outfit, seemingly every album has come accompanied by some new twist or pothole. 

2009’s Tarpits and Canyonlands — a grand, baroquely ornamented collection that married Coldplay’s stadium-sized insistence to Sufjan Stevens’ touch for the quirky — seemed certain to launch the group to indie stardom until a debilitating nerve condition robbed member Daniel Michalak of the use of his hands. The group got back together when he got better, delivering a more sober and subdued consideration of faith and mortality with 2011’s All That the Rain Promises.

Founding member Bryan Rahija departed after recording 2013’s more upbeat (and more uneven) Metrics of Affection, and just before the release of 2015’s Hold On, Stewart Robinson, another founding member, abruptly announced his departure. The latter blow seemed particularly damaging. Hold On recaptured the rousing energy of Tarpits, enhancing it with adventurous dashes of electronic texture and lyrics that parsed familiar themes of heartbreak and disillusionment with clear-headed maturity.

Michalak and James Phillips, the remaining members from Bombadil’s Tarpits lineup, were left to decide whether the project should continue.

“I think that’s a question we still ask ourselves,” Phillips tells Free Times. “Our band has changed a lot over the years, both stylistically and membership-wise. We’ve done a lot of different things. I was thinking about that — I’m walking my dog right now — before you called. And I don’t know, man, I think at times we’ve asked ourselves, ‘Should we just start a new band?’ But there’s just been this natural evolution to the way everything happened.”

Accustomed to overcoming, he and Michalak enlisted longtime friend Stacy Harden to fill out their ranks and kept touring. 

And then a funny thing happened. 2017’s Fences arrived as the purest distillation yet of what makes Bombadil special. With Rahija popping by to bolster the instrumentation, the band intentionally pared down to just acoustic guitar, upright bass, piano, vocals and a little percussion. It’s the perfect setting for a collection of songs that teeter on the whisper-thin line between wonder and dismay, weaving simple, almost childish words into honest musings on life and love. 

“I’m wondering where I stand,” Phillips sighs on the title track, whisked along by quick, tender guitar picking and spare bits of piano, “Am I the front door or am I the land / That you’re living on / Until you can move along?”

Here, as on most of the album, Bombadil’s essential tension — stretched between serious themes, cute phrasings and unfailingly bright melodies — becomes even more striking thanks to the stark arrangement.

“We felt that the previous two records had been a little too multiple songwriters contributing songs to the band, but perhaps not thinking about the whole thing as an artistic statement,” Phillips says, explaining why the band decided to strip things down.

“I think throughout the course of all of our records, we’ve interacted with sadness a lot,” he notes of the way Fences fits into Bombadil’s catalog. “Although I don’t think anyone would say our band is a sad band — from the kind of musical elements of it, major-y sounding pop melodies. But it’s often about existential anguish or sadness. And I think it’s funny, I recognize that looking at our songs in the rearview, but that’s not how you sit down to write a song. I do think it’s easier to write about problems in life than it is to just be like, ‘Woohoo! Life’s great.’”

And Phillips says that this way of making records — carefully considered, highly collaborative — will continue. The members wrote and demoed up enough material for a record last year, but upon listening to it on a European tour, they decided to go back and whittle and add to it. When they’re off the road, they gather most days at Phillips’ in-house studio to write together, coming up with melodies and words quickly in the moment.

“There’s a nice energy to making something rapidly like that,” Phillips says. “But then the trick becomes going back and editing that into a finished composition.”