“The Bad Books process was built on a friendship first,” Robert McDowell said in a recent interview. McDowell, Kevin Devine and Andy Hull are music partners, but they’re also very good friends. And that bond is at the core of Bad Books, the ongoing project between Hull and McDowell, both of the Atlanta rock band Manchester Orchestra, and New York-based musician Devine.
On their third Bad Books record and first in seven years, III, Devine and Hull share songwriting duties and hang their emotions out to dry in a way that feels more mature, natural and resonant than just about anything either has ever done before. III finds the trio using their emotional connection not just as a means to weather all manner of grown-up problems, but also as thematic groundwork. Devine’s stylish indie folk and Hull’s emo squall mesh seamlessly with McDowell’s production quirks on an album that deals quietly with parenthood, grief and spirituality, one that will leave you feeling thankful Bad Books went beyond a one-off side project.
“No peace, no calm, no coasting,” goes the chorus of the Devine-penned opener “Wheel Well,” a tender, glitching can of digital folk that swells to a confident, Lord Huron-like climax. Hull and McDowell contribute their first of many harmonies as Devine imposes on us one of this album’s key questions: “If the people you meet are mostly you in disguise / And want what you want, something good in their lives / Is that a socialist song?” Hull and Devine both like to cram politics, religion and relationships into bite-sized controversies in their respective work, and here they leave the resolution open-ended. “An invocation of Christ, I guess,” Devine answers. “It’s whatever you like.”
Think of “Wheel Well” like “Circle of Life” for semi-depressed adults, but don’t consider III an entirely morose effort. There are moments of true sadness on the album, yet it more often rests in a scenic gray area. “What an empty, gorgeous place,” Hull sings on “UFO,” sounding more like Jason Molina than an ATL emo kid. “I belong here.” On the reverberating “Lake House,” he grapples with marriage and parenthood—two supposedly joyful but extremely complicated institutions—and how they exist together. “Just because we have a baby,” he sings, “Doesn’t mean that you belong to me.” The outro on “I Wrote It Down For You” looks again to the divine, this time searching for a higher power within someone else: “If God is goosebumps, you’re the proof.”
Listening to Manchester Orchestra, you often get the feeling Hull sees life as darkness endured only for the occasional pocket of light. The band has gradually outgrown their mournful hardcore days, but even as they reached for alt-rock radio status with 2017’s softer A Black Mile To The Surface, they never really sounded completely happy. With Bad Books, it’s more of a toss-up. Their 2010 self-titled debut may have been chock-full of dark, sparkly soft rock, but 2012’s II was downright chipper at times—there’s a whistle on the electronic number “Forest Whitaker” that would make “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” singer James Baskett jealous.
Hull welcomed a daughter in 2014, as did Devine after writing his most recent solo record, 2017’s We Are Who We’ve Always Been. If one’s capacity for empathy expands with parenthood, it makes sense that III possesses this deep understanding of emotion. The album’s undeniable focal point is “I Love You, I’m Sorry, Please Help Me, Thank You,” a snappy shot of soft rock written by Devine that reads like a Fleabag plotline and grapples with parenting in a world where all the odds are working against you. “I opened my perspective from my fear of the world / For the daughter I was trying to raise,” he sings. But all that angst amounts to nothing when compared with his child, “the total sum of everything asleep in my lap.”
III is a deep exhale. Like many of Manchester Orchestra’s complex sad songs and Devine’s introspective musings, III poses joy as a choice. At the end of “ILYISPHM,” someone reminds Devine that “life is sweet / If I let it be.” He trades verses with Hull on the nine-minute closer “Army,” which explores guilt and grief and leaves us with the reminder, “There’s nothing wrong with being alive.” It’s hard to believe these are the same guys who in 2012 whistled absentmindedly and made jokes about a certain Oscar-winning actor. But bands move forward, progress slides backwards and men become fathers. Bad Books’ take on it all could technically be considered dad rock, but on III, masculinity is an afterthought. At the record’s forefront is just three friends using their respective talents to create a collection of songs about the messy business of living.