(Self-released, CD, digital)
Bow Thayer has been kicking up a beautiful racket in Vermont for many years now. The singer-songwriter has delivered some stellar LPs during that time. But his latest, A Better Version of the Truth, seems destined to stand at the forefront of that discography for two reasons: First, it's one of the tightest, leanest albums he's made so far. The second reason has to do with the tragedies that shaped this album, as well as the rest of Thayer's career.
Work on these songs started several years ago, when sessions were interrupted when drummer Jeff Berlin suffered a stroke. With luck and grit, he recovered — but slowly, and he's been relearning the drums since.
Then, in early 2018 while those early demos were finally being built into a finished album, things got far worse. In March, Alex Abraham, a talented bass player and a kind, thoughtful man, took his own life. His pocket and melodic ear were integral to Thayer's recent sound. But more importantly, of course, the two musicians were friends.
The final sessions must have been both torturous and therapeutic for Thayer, but he finally finished the album and the result is intense. At just eight tracks, this small, tight collection defies expectations at damn near every turn, but it's never whimsical or self-indulgent. This is an urgent transmission.
Indeed, there's nothing even resembling Thayer's typical blues or Americana until the title track comes crashing in — and even then, the songwriter's muse keeps wandering. It's like a Southern-fried Pink Floyd anthem, a rock opera that never needs to lean through the fourth wall and club you with a concept. Which makes it the perfect namesake for this cinematic ride of an album.
Befitting a tribute project that's received endless hours of scrutiny, A Better Version of the Truth is mixed superbly. The music is organic and raw, of course — this is still Bow Thayer. But there's nary a rough edge to be heard. His voice remains a broken vessel repaired with seams of gold, and he continues to hone it.
Thayer has previously claimed influences as diverse as Fugazi and Yes, and meant it all earnestly, too. Even his most straightforward albums have been idiosyncratic affairs. His willingness to go wherever the song takes him has given the songwriter an expansive reach over these long years. The band makes the most of that quality here. Even when they're stretching way out, they keep Thayer anchored.
The loss of Abraham looms over this project just as surely as the bassist's inventive, driving touch shapes nearly every minute of it. Yet while A Better Version of the Truth is inseparable from that context, it has to be said: This is an album that would impress people who knew nothing about it. The songs stand on their own.
Thayer performs this Thursday, February 7, at the Wobbly Barn in Killington. A Better Version of the Truth is available via most major streaming services and at bowthayer.bandcamp.com