“What a strange world / What a sad place to be.”
This is the opening line on Boy & Bear‘s new album, and you’ll not be surprised to find that it feels like their most rawly personal record to date; it is self-titled, after all.
After their last album, 2019’s Suck on Light, became the indie folk band’s fourth consecutive debut album, the world collapsed in on Boy & Bear and the rest of us the following year.
Four years is a long time in music, and in life, and Boy & Bear sound transformed on their fifth album, which was released at the end of May.
From that opening song, “Strange World”, synth notes pierce the air, exquisitely enhancing their distinctive folksy sound with futuristic electronica. Fascinating percussion persists throughout the 11 songs, the five-piece grasping for new ideas, trying to push each other’s musicality.
And as the band’s Dave Hosking told Rolling Stone AU/NZ, Boy & Bear was also impacted by serious matters, including a difficult mental health period.
Whether they’re exploring darkness or light, even if they’re stuck in a strange world and sad place, Boy & Bear at least sound buoyed by this fresh chapter in the band’s career.
You can read Hosking’s in-depth breakdown of their new album below, and you can also catch Boy & Bear on their Australia and New Zealand album tour from next week (more information here).
Boy & Bear’s Boy & Bear is out now.
Boy & Bear Track by Track:
“Strange World” was written just as COVID hit. Jon (Hart) and I were working on an idea and it was during this period that COVID came and wiped out our Australian tour. After a previous forced break due to illness kept us from touring for a long time, it seemed that finally we were going to be able to get back to what we loved, and then it all got canned.
It was at this moment where the lyrics for “Strange World” just started flowing out. I particularly love this song, it might even be my favourite on the album. I love the moment the drums hit and it feels like we’re really moving, as if the intensity of the rhythm section symbolises a sense of determination and propulsion. Even though it was a tough moment, we were going to push through.
“State of Flight”
“State of Flight” is at least thematically a little bit of an outlier and a theme I’ve touched on in the past. It ultimately is about the love of the arts, the love of the creative process. I think this became more relevant during COVID and also in amongst some health challenges.
Regardless of what’s going on in my life I have always loved writing and that special moment where a song really starts to come together. It was the first time we had also leant quite heavily on drum machines. We really wanted to blend this with a more organic B&B approach to see what interesting result we could get. It also has the highest note I’ve ever sung. Jon originally wrote the outro hook on a synth and I had the idea of trying to match it with a high vocal. I got there but it took some time. I think it helped in making the back end of the song really soar, as if we’re taking flight.
“Silver Moon” was an interesting song to write. The chords are much simpler and although originally we had it all mapped out by a drum machine, it felt cooler replacing them with real drums in the end. I was having trouble with the lyrics so I started to explore a more ‘poetic license approach,’ not worrying as much about the specific clarity of the story.
I remember reading a bunch of James Mercer lyrics and just embracing interesting concepts for the sake of it. I think ultimately this song is about feeling loved and supported by so many people in my life but still feeling a sense of discontent. And as a side note, I’ve always really loved the interesting guitar hook in this song.
“Magnus” always had a cool chorus but I had some challenges working out the verses. I couldn’t find a melody and lyric that felt really good. It wasn’t until we hit the studio where I stumbled across something that felt right. I think the song is about determination, about digging deep to find whatever reserves you have left. I also think it’s about adaptation. We have to, in times of struggle, find new ways to adapt to our new world, to dig deep and keep going. I think the chug of the chorus really emulates this feeling.
This song was a late bloomer. We had most of the record done and then Jon discovered an old version of this song which had a verse and chorus melody but no lyrics. This tends to be the way I write – come up with a melody using Jargon and then work back from there to fill in the story. Often the melody itself starts to drive the themes so it’s really about connecting with the melodic atmosphere and then supporting it with an appropriate story.
I always loved the melody so I was determined to come up with the right lyric. I think on some level this this song is about being misunderstood. From the outside I had everything you could ask for, a good relationship, I travel the world playing music, I have a wonderful group of friends and family, and yet all I crave is to have my body and mind back to full capacity. It’s very difficult for people to truly understand this and it can be a lonely feeling. On some level, though, I’ve had to accept this.
I don’t think there’s any way to explain this song without being a little vulnerable. I had a pretty hairy period in 2021 where I started getting panic attacks. I’d never had them before and they really escalated to a pretty scary point. It was as if the longevity of health challenges finally caused something in my brain to snap and it left me completely incapacitated. This song, though, is more about the impact of that period on my partner, it’s as if the song is a letter to her to remind her that “I got this”, that I can handle this and we will be ok.
From a musical perspective it was the first time we’d used an arpeggiator in such a dominant way. It feels like this coupled with the 16th’s on the hats really gives the song a driving momentum from start to finish. It’s not the most dynamic song we have but it ploughs and I really love that.
I think this song is about reflection. It’s been such a long journey for me and a big part of this song is about looking backwards to work out whether I’ve made the right decisions along the way. In short, I feel like I haven’t had much choice in what I’ve had to do, but I think that’s often the reality for personal challenges. You can only really feel your way through it until you find something that works and as the song suggests, you’ve just gotta keep moving. I also think this song touches on the loneliness of the journey. As mentioned earlier, I’ve been lucky to be surrounded by good people, but there is a sense of loneliness that comes with fighting something that has no name.
“Just to Be Kind”
This song is simply about loving someone but having to let them go for reasons out of your own hands. I had some personal challenges about a year ago and it got me thinking about the future and whether or not I could settle down and have a family. In that moment, I felt a real sense of responsibility and I realised that I wouldn’t ask her to sacrifice all that just for me. That wouldn’t be fair.
This song was originally written on acoustic. I always liked the incessant chug that the chords brought. It always had a certain ominous mood to it which I think is amplified by the low vocal. The original version had a completely new chorus in there but it got tiresome, so we cut it and essentially stayed on the same two chords for the whole song, just shifting the bass lines and other instrumentation to make it feel like it was going places.
This song was actually an answer song to another that didn’t make the record, a song called “Alchemy”. It was written about a man who loses the sun and spends his life trying to find it. So this song was written as if our protagonist ends up so high up in the sky that it’s cold and its dark and it’s lonely. He sees confronting images and wrestles with his own determination. It was fun to build this world.
“Hostage” was another song where Jon had come up with a great chord pattern and I had built a melody around it using Jargon. The theme of the song came late but essentially it’s about learning to love and learning to be a good partner in amongst a constant drive to get better. I can get very one-track minded in regards to my focus on all things health and I’ve felt at times I have been neglectful in regards to my relationship, so I wanted this song to be a reflection of that.
This song was written in the context of posing a question to the listener – “how many times can you push on the mind before the mind pushes you?” I think in the context of what was a genuine mental breakdown in 2021, that question around how much we can physically take is something I’m curious about.
Instead of it being more a traditional diary entry-style song, it’s more of a direct conversation with the listener, asking questions of what we do in times of struggle. The pulse of the kick drum always felt like it was driving forward and the repetition of some of the lyrics helped reinforce the mood and determination, almost becoming a mantra.
There is also a direct reference to pain in this song and I’m fascinating with the idea of befriending it at times of need. What happens when we invite it in, use it as a driving force for change. By the time the full groove drops we are now in full flight, we have found our drive and we are determined to not let it go.