Haley Bonar is sprinting at full-tilt. Her half-laced boots carry her from a small town's main street, along back roads as remote as her distant gaze. Night falls, and she's still running, dwarfed by a freeway overpass and warehouses that rise up around her. As she rounds a corner, industrial grain silos take their place. Orange flames begin to dance into the corner of the frame, but Bonar races on. The flames claim both the urban and natural detritus without bias, but Bonar emerges suddenly at an abandoned crossroads, unscathed.
The scene described is from the music video for the title track off Last War, the Twin Cities-based songwriter's latest album. The fire is on the album cover as well, this time scorching majestic pines and consuming the charred remains of an idylic home. It's a downright apocalyptic way to reintroduce yourself as an artist, but Bonar has always liked a challenge.
"There are times when you do have these mini-apocalypses in your life, and although those times are crazy and hard and terrible in a lot of ways, they're also the best things that can happen to you," she says, with lilts of a South Dakota accent that she pokes fun at. As a result, she's got a delightful way of using the word "shit."
"If you keep your wits about you and focus on yourself," she continues, "you can change and grow from that."
Written in 2011 and 2012 as a way to channel frustration and disillusionment, Last War has a sonic palette that is decidedly darker than Bonar's traditional idiom. Picking up on cues from 2011's electrified Golder, the new album sheds the spare folk and Americana roots found in Bonar's earlier recordings in favor of icy synthesizers and driving bass. The shift is less jarring than one might assume, as Bonar's songwriting has always pushed against the boundaries of terms like "alt-country" to defy easy categorization. Time spent blowing off steam with her no-wave supergroup Gramma's Boyfriend is a clue to the production shifts, but the austere melancholy of Bonar's previous melodies remains.
"When people ask me 'What are your influences on this recording?' I say, 'Oh, my other band!' Which sounds so, so full of myself, but it's true," Bonar says of Gramma's Boyfriend. "I've always listened to '80s and punk-rock music, that's what I grew up listening to, so it's just a natural progression to adapt that into my own sound after playing with that band for a few years."
Instantly accessible singles like "Kill the Fun" and "No Sensitive Man" have inviting, widescreen hooks, but dabs of angular, distorted guitar and metallic bass can be prickly and cold to the touch. Gramma's bandmates Jeremy Ylvisaker and Jacob Hanson were heavily involved in the recording of Last War, contributing most of the strings along with drums from Hanson's brother Jeremy. (Live, the songs are filled out by the Hansons, bassist Rob Skoro, and keyboardist Kate Murray.)
Last War still echoes the Bonar that we saw on her debut in parts. On "From a Cage," she returns to the solo-piano instrumentation to give an aching portrait of romantic dysfunction, with the help of Bon Iver's Justin Vernon.
"We weren't really friends, but we have a lot of the same people in our lives. We were kind of just corresponding back and forth and I sent him some of my demos for the record," Bonar explains. "He got back to me the next day and said, 'This song is perfect! I've listened to it like 30 times in the car in my driveway. You should just release it like this, don't do anything to it.'"
"Eat for Free," the album's stark final cut, finds Bonar contemplating the nature of her chosen business, and it doesn't paint a particularly sunny picture.
"It's so hard to make it financially, emotionally, whatever, as an artist because everything is free," Bonar details. "People expect you to give that away, because you're not doing this 9-to-5 job or whatever." She's quick to point out that the song, and Last War itself, is about perseverance more than anything.
"When I had my daughter, I needed to refine myself. I needed to figure out how to be a mom, and figure out how to maintain my creativity, and I gained a sense of power that I didn't have before and a sense of fearlessness in my writing, I guess," Bonar says. "I wanted to let it all out on paper... there's a lot of emotion on there, a lot of rage, there's a lot of sadness, there's a lot of letting things go. Which basically kind of sums up the record; the cover of the record is a building burning down, and everything around it is beautiful and green. So that says it all to me, you know? Shit happens, and you have to rebuild it."