In early 2015, Stuart Robinson, keyboardist, vocalist, and founding member of Durham folk-pop outfit Bombadil, left the band for a second time—and, it seems, for good. But the band—now a trio of Daniel Michalak, James Phillips, and Stacy Harden—hasn't been sweating it much. Instead, they've been focusing on creating Fences, a new LP that explores themes of moving on. Opening number "What's So Great About You," is a quintessential breakup track, with the band asking, "What's so great about you? Forget it, all that we've been through." Bombadil immediately doubles down in the next song, "Not Those Kind of People," with lines like, "We're not those kind of people, the ones that speak no evil" sung over mellow handclaps and twinkling piano. The gentle folk instrumentals and Michalak's light voice barely mask the anger of the lyrics on those introductory tracks. It's clear the band was bitter during the songwriting process, but even without Robinson, Bombadil still sounds like itself.
On Fences, Bombadil turned away from self-production, instead enlisting veteran John Vanderslice, who's worked with the likes of Spoon, the Mountain Goats, and Strand of Oaks. Having written and demoed the LP in Littleton, Massachusetts, in January 2016, the band recorded the final songs in the fall in San Francisco with Vanderslice at the helm. The final version of Fences is all first takes, and all of its songs are gleaming. That, too, was the result of Bombadil exploring new territory. The band called on friend Nasir Bhanpuri to analyze the old Bombadil catalog to figure out the band's most successful songs and what audiences loved the best, using data from streaming platforms. Armed with that information, the band created a streamlined, cohesive folk-pop album, more stripped-down and quieter than 2015's Hold On. It is, by design, peak Bombadil.
Despite its opening shots, Fences closes with a sunny outlook. On "Perfect," Bombadil imagines what a future would look like within a new (although nonmusical) relationship, daydreaming about kids' names and interior design. It's the kind of conversation you have with best friends, predicting what life will look like down the road. "I can walk away if I have to," Michalak assures on the record's final track, "No Snow in the Valley," marking closure. But fortunately for Bombadil, it doesn't look like they'll have to.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Next Levels."