Ha Ha Tonka’s latest effort, Death of a Decade, is another stunner from a band that routinely pushes all the right sonic buttons. The new album finds the boys summoning all the floorboard-rattling power of a backwoods church to impart a sense of urgency to every track. And still the songs manage to have a familiar, timeless quality to them, perhaps due to the 200 year old barn the album was recorded in.
Death of a Decade plays like the work of a more united, more mature cast of characters. Contributions from each member seem more welcome than ever. To be sure, the band leans less on Brett Anderson’s wailing guitar riffs and more on his melodic mandolin arpeggios. But fear not intrepid listeners, the songs still have plenty of damnit-all-to-hellness thanks to Lennon Bone’s pounding rhythms and Luke Long’s chugging bass lines. Both provide the perfect ballast to the mandolin’s litheness. I get a sense that Ha Ha Tonka are more comfortable in their collective skin than ever.
The new album spurns the sweeping tableaus of youth from previous albums, opting instead for tales of moving on and the possibilities of “what’s next.” Brian Roberts’ lyrics paint layered stories of optimistic nomads (Westward Bound: “Hard times we left ‘em back east and the future moves under our feet”), vexing women (Problem Solver: “The girl is a problem solver/ There ain’t nothing else I think you can call her”) and even, himself (The Humorist: “Never thought I was all that funny”). And, as expected, Roberts’ phrasing and delivery are as infectious as ever.
Like all their works, Death of a Decade is best consumed in totality. The album definitely rewards you the more you listen to it. And, I can only imagine, takes on a life of its own in concert. It’s an album that takes its rightful place alongside Buckle in the Bible Belt and Novel Sounds of the Nouveau South in the Ha Ha Tonka canon.