BY MACK HOOLIGAN
Brian Henneman and his band of alt-country veterans the Bottle Rockets aren’t “old,” but they’ve been around long enough to see the futuristic prognostications of their youth fail to come to pass, or do so in unexpected ways. As the rousing title-track opener, of their 13th album, released by Bloodshot Records on Oct. 12, puts it: “In our technicolor childhood / We burned incandescent dreams / illuminating all these future things / that didn’t turn out like we thought they would.”
Bit Logic is that kind of reckoning: a mature artist’s ruminations and occasional exclamations on the good, bad and ugly of our weird, hyper-technologically inflected 21st-century situation. It’s a strange, transitional time marked by science that “ain’t no fiction,” debates with jaded waitresses about “cell phone selfie vanity” that get interrupted by (you guessed it) technology, and Highway 70 traffic jams featuring an odd mix of farmer’s trailers, Nissan SUV’s, and speeding cop cars, where “every big rig bus and Kia” has “got their own idea.”
In this brave new-old world where our scratchy-and-muddy but strangely comforting “Lo-Fi” ways keep getting replaced with challenging “new way[s] of keepin’ it real,” the information overload is so daunting that, as Henneman bemoans in his dark “Doomsday Letter,” “Whatever I can do to keep my chin up is a damn good thing.”
Amidst the disquieting cacophony — topped by the constant bombardment of shrill screeds from “chicken little,” bile-spewing soothsayers — it takes a constant, conscious effort to remain alert to those rare, passing moments of beauty and truth, like the one noted in “Human Perfection”: “Heard a ballgame on the radio In the background playin’ low Crack of the bat and the crowd went wild Looked at my wife and she just smiled Forgot about the damned election Replaced with human perfection.”
For Henneman, such sanity-saving openness is serviced by regular jaunts to old school honky-tonks like “Stovall’s Grove,” along with daily writing sessions in his closet-sized songwriting room in the attic — aka, his “psychiatrist/treehouse composite” (“Knotty Pine”). Such respites can help you keep your wits and perspective about you, he wisely observes.
And if the cultivation of said perspective doesn’t come to fruition on this particular day, the wisdom gained from sticking around reminds him (in “Maybe Tomorrow”) that time’s passage just might save the day — though ironically, Henneman strung together this bouncy pop-blues tune from the hashtags he appended to an Instagram post at the end of a failed songwriting session. One must remain alert to serendipitous messages that fall from the evening’s sky, after all — whatever technology gets ’em delivered.
As for making a remunerative living from music these days — or at least enough of one to be able to cover the unexpected HVAC and car repair bills — well… it probably ain’t gonna happen. As Henneman notes in the wry, Eric Ambel-prompted rocker, Bad Time to be An Outlaw: “That Nashville pop it ain’t my deal Even though the cash’s real But these days “What Would Waylon Do?” Don’t make much money sad but true It’s a bad time to be an outlaw.“
Luckily, the enforced poverty hasn’t (yet) prompted the Bottle Rockets to abandon their almost three-decades-long musical adventure. It’s just shifted their focus to the modest rewards of having a decent-sized fan base and a label that believes in them — not to mention most importantly, being able to write some goddamn good songs that actually mean something to people. “Some things don’t need correction,” as Henneman rightly asserts.
In the end, through benign neglect of the naysayers, a humble awareness of your own limitations and mortality, and the constancy of beloved fellow travelers (as detailed in the lovely “Silver Ring”), it all comes out OK. That’s the survivor’s view from maturity, y’all: having pondered the accumulated bumps & bruises, you’re left with a kind of quiet wisdom and more than a bit of bemusement. On Bit Logic, Henneman and team hit that bent nail firmly on the head.