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The point of an odyssey is to return home changed—still the same person, but deepened somehow, wiser and better, wearing your traveling scars proudly. Bass Drum of Death’s new album Say I Won’t is the end result of a journey that took singer and bandleader John Barrett from a small town in Mississippi and sent him across the world and back home again. The music still rips, with blown-out guitars and drums that sound like bombs going off, and the melodies are catchier than ever, hollered in Barrett’s trademark yelp. But the music hits differently now, more at peace with itself, propelled by a new swagger. Say I Won’t is the record of a veteran band finding its stride and leaning into it, stripping back the excess and finding the raw core of their sound.
Say I Won’t, the band’s fifth record, comes at a time of massive change for Barrett, having relocated from New York to his hometown of Oxford, Mississippi during the pandemic. The record is also a homecoming of a different sort, with the band rejoining the ranks of Fat Possum, also in Oxford, the label that released their first record GB City in 2011.
“Moving back to Oxford was a much-needed reset,” says Barrett. “When I started, I just wanted to play in a punk band and drink beers and travel around. I didn’t really think much past that. And I got really burned out. When I moved back home, I started writing songs again, just for fun. I realized I wanted this record to have more of a hometown feel. The switch back to Fat Possum was easy. It’s much better working with people I know and love and love everything they do.”
Say I Won’t is the first Bass Drum of Death album written, demoed, and recorded with the touring band instead of Barrett doing everything on his own. He found a freedom in working with collaborators that wasn’t available to him before, opening different aspects of the songwriting. It was a process of live recording, layering on different parts and overdubs, and then stripping it all back to the bones of the song, keeping the raw wild heart of the music intact.
“My first two records were made entirely by me alone with my gear, my laptop, and a Snowball USB mic,” says Barrett. “They were just made quickly, cheaply, as an excuse to tour. I wanted to take my time with this record. Make something good that I was proud of in itself.”
The band recorded the new record with Patrick Carney of the Black Keys at Audio Eagle Studios in Nashville. “It’s basically Pat’s house,” says Barrett. “It was like a playground. We set up and ripped through the songs live. The control room and the recording room are on two different floors, so we’d play a song and Pat would come running down the stairs, telling us little things to change.”
The result is a groove-oriented, 1970’s-indebted collection of rock songs, with tempos set for cruising and scuzzy guitars galore. There’s an energy and vitality to the music that feels in line with the best of the Bass Drum songs, but with an added boost that comes from new bandmates and a new perspective.
Album opener “Find It” is a perfect embodiment of the band’s new era, an urgent blast of Britpop-tinged punk, all riffs and hooks over drummer Ian Kirkpatrick’s steady thundering beat. The song finds Barrett in a reflective mood, as he sings, “I know all the world around me’s crumbling/I’m left holding the bag and stumbling/Who knows, I might be the problem.” It’s a new, more sober perspective for the lifelong rocker, with the added potency that comes from taking responsibility for one’s own life and problems.
“It’s a reference to my own personal issues, chemical or otherwise,” says Barrett. “The song is about how the place you live, be it small town Mississippi or New York, is irrelevant. Nothing really matters unless you change yourself. That’s on you.”
“Say Your Prayers” is a collaboration with Mike Kerr of Royal Blood. A midtempo bruiser that finds Barrett snarling, “The wolf is in your bed/But the Devil’s knocking at your door.” It’s all attitude, with mountains of sludge-slathered riffs, tangled harmonies courtesy of brother Jim Barrett, and a stomping beat fit for a movie car chase scene.
“That song is about seeing somebody at a party and knowing it’s bad news,” says Barrett, “a kind of Medusa-like situation. It’s about temptation and succumbing to it, and the consequences of that. I guess in a way it’s a breakup song.”
Say I Won’t finds a reinvigorated Barrett firing at all cylinders, backed by his best band yet. It’s Bass Drum of Death at their loosest and scuzziest and most tuneful, a true rock record in all the right ways. It’s a throwback by way of moving forward, sporting a maturity and swagger that comes from a decade of playing music on the road and surviving to tell about it. More than anything, Say I Won’t is a blast to listen to, music built for driving with your stereo cranked.
“I had to relearn that making music is fucking fun,” says Barrett, “and you should have fun doing it. If it’s miserable, what’s the point?” He laughs. “But man, when a song hits, it’s the best feeling in the world. That’s what this record is about. Getting back to that good place and staying there.”