Music » Music Features

Sucker Punch

Harlan T. Bobo captures contentment on a terrific third album.


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When you're out drinking on your own, heartaches from the past feel overblown," Harlan T. Bobo croons on "Sweet Life," the lead song on his third album, Sucker, set to be released by the local Goner label on April 16th.

Bobo might be referencing his local-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 and domestic contentment found on Sucker.

Bobo can be guarded — a reluctant participant in the marketing necessities of a music career. But whatever artifice and honest distance have gone into his persona, Bobo's music is direct, personal ("Yeah, too personal," he says), and easy to embrace.

Too Much Love was an accessible but unnervingly intimate collection of songs tracking one delicate but troubled romance. Bobo's follow-up, 2007's I'm Your Man, was a braver, pricklier, funnier record that seemed to be partly rooted in doubts about his debut's appeal. On that album's standout, "So Bad," Bobo daydreamed wistfully 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 of Bobo's wife, Anne Ciriani, and the birth of their now eight-month-old son. As such, the album completes a personal and musical journey begun with the lovelorn Too Much Love.

"I was pretty seriously after it about five years ago. I really wanted it," Bobo says of the family urge that inspired "So Bad." "Then I got really content just hanging out in my apartment making music. Then I met Anne, and I swear to God we were trying to have a child like the first week we met. It was already there. It was underneath everything."

Bobo met the woman who would become his wife while on a European tour with fellow local musicians Jack Oblivian and John Paul Keith, and Bobo's new family has split time between Memphis and Perpignon, France, where Ciriani owns an ice-cream shop on the beach at Argeles. Sucker references both the meeting and courtship and the travels that have ensued.

"It's mostly just that period of meeting her and traveling," Bobo says of the record's inspiration. "There's some fiction in there, but it's tied up in all that. I might be the only person who cares, but it's the movement of places and where things are written. Every song seems to have the feel of where it was written."

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 overreaching: There's 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 a blend of Paris café music and Beatlesque pop ("Mlle. Chatte"). But it all still sounds of a piece.

Bobo says he had three musical goals for Sucker: "I wanted speed. I wanted short songs. And I wanted melody."

He succeeded in making what he acknowledges is a "snappier" record.

"Maybe I've written too many songs in bed," Bobo muses. "I don't understand it. But I had to be really conscious to make things move. Maybe there's just a part of my personality that's slow."

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 an 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.'"

"That was literally written that morning, with my feet propped up on somebody's head, thinking, What were we doing?" Bobo remembers. "That was in Perpignon, in a little flat on the beach."

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.

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