Too enigmatic, too laconic, and too careless about the music biz to gain fame outside of his adopted homes in Tennessee and France, Harlan T Bobo is a rare bird – a soulful, comedic, yet vicious and wholly underrated singer-songwriter, a divorced single father who seems happiest when he’s most dissolute.
Porch Songs, the long-awaited next chapter in Bobo’s discography, will be released on Goner Records on August 5, 2022. Everything, and nothing, has changed: Bobo’s painfully sharp lyrics and graveled delivery are omnipresent. He still deals in unvarnished, uncomfortable truths about love. His wearied worldview, revered by his listeners, has further ossified on Porch Songs, which abounds with sad titles, worn out lyrics, and tunes about departed friends, such as “Fan,” which unravels Bobo’s memories of the late Shawn Cripps.
Despite the sparse melancholy that clouds most of the album’s 13 tracks, Porch Songs is no downer. Instead, it bristles with energy, sounding like a beyond-the-grave gift bestowed on Bobo from the ghosts of Waylon Jennings, Lou Reed, and Leonard Cohen. Bobo laughs when offered the comparison. “They may be mildly derivative of those people, but they’re not that good.” Listeners will disagree. Take “Worry,” the opening song: it unwinds like Jennings’ early outlaw country tune “The Taker,” with a similar wry sentimentality that underwrites the folly of failed love. Bobo’s commiseration on the song sounds close-up and confidential, as if he’s telling his story to the stranger on the next barstool. “Satisfaction,” “Prey,” and “Fan,” on the other hand, evoke the celestial melodies that comprise Cohen’s Songs of Love and Hate–with every lyric, it seems, Bobo addresses his muse from the point-of-view of a rearview mirror. Unlike Reed, Bobo will never have his “Perfect Day.” As he croons on the final verse of “Satisfaction,” “what a shame.”
“I recorded these songs just to get them out of my head,” says Bobo. He cut 11 of the tracks that ultimately wound up on Porch Songs in a single day onto eight-track tape at Watt House, a rehearsal space in Perpignan, France. Perpignan has been home for more than a decade now, after rambling from Ohio to San Francisco to Memphis, with myriad layovers in between. And while they may have, as Bobo claims, “languished under his bed for years” – these 13 songs rank among the best he’s written.
It’s also worth taking a cinematic approach to Porch Songs. Not counting Bobo’s holiday album, Merry Christmas Spaceman, Porch Songs is his fifth full-length record, following Too Much Love, I’m Your Man, Sucker, and A History of Violence. Taken as an entirety, the album sequence is similar to François Truffaut’s semi-autobiographical Antoine Doinel Cycle, which began with The 400 Blows and ended with Love on the Run. On Porch Songs, Bobo may be, like Doinel, bloodied and bowed, but, as he sings on “Desert,” he has finally “made a home in the desert sun.” Then the raucous “Rock Star” turns back to Jennings’ outlaw story-song style, as does “Tom” and the singalong “Must Be in Memphis,” which portrays the nightlife Bobo left behind in the Bluff City. “I’m feeling my best and acting my worst/I must be in Memphis tonight,” he sings, describing decadent pool parties, late night gay bars, and the general detritis of a musician’s life. For “Let Mama Sleep,” Bobo downshifts into a merciless lullaby, then closes with a full band (guitarist Valentin Estel, drummer Sébastian Girard, and bassist Phil Argeles) on “Free,” a sunnier song that harkens back to the lovesick emotions that pervaded Too Much Love and I’m Your Man.
“There are silly songs on the album,” Bobo acknowledges, “but the heaviest hitters are about the dissolution of a relationship. None of the music I’m listening to myself is this confessional. Artists I like can keep my interest going without talking about their own lives, but I can’t seem to do that. Whenever I sit down by myself, with a guitar, I’m consoling myself. I write to console myself. When I’m happy, I’ve got better things to do.”