“It’s hard to be human/Only death can set you free,” singer/songwriter Eric Bachmann croons on “Human,” the first song on the excellent new album from Archers of Loaf, a group most folks stopped thinking about when Bill Clinton left office. It’s the sound of a middle-aged dad dealing with pandemic mortality, the horrors of post-Trump reality and a realization that the complaints of his youth weren’t all that serious. As he puts it on the shuddering “In the Surface Noise”: “What’s more for them ain’t less for you.”
Cursed (or blessed) with a truly hideous band name, Archers of Loaf embodied the idea of 1990s indie rock as well or better than anyone this side of Pavement. Archers were stumbling titans who blended the anthemic and the personal, the perfectly collapsing riff and the whiny complaint. Powered by guitarists Eric Bachmann and Eric Johnson, the North Carolina band had an archetypal Nineties indie-rock career. Formed in 1991, they made two fantastic albums (1993’s Icky Metal and 1995’s Vee Vee), briefly flirted with a major label (1997’s All the Nation’s Airports was distributed by Elektra), and then called it quits in 1998. The “dream of the Nineties,” as Portlandia put it, died soon after.
Except suddenly 1990s indie rock is bigger than it’s been since its heyday. Bands are hitting the road (Pavement, Come and Girls Against Boys to name a few) or putting out great new music (Superchunk has made some of their best records since 2010) or inspiring young artists like Wet Leg and Snail Mail. So it seems appropriate that Archers, with their one and only line-up, are back with their first new album in 24 years, the brilliantly titled Reason in Decline. It’s the fuzzy sound of a band unconcerned with the past, ignoring their legacy and responding to a new, darker reality. (The album-closing “War is Wide Open” ends with a piano-crash worthy of Don Music.)
The reboot starts with Bachmann’s voice, a new and different instrument since he had to relearn how to sing following throat surgery. Buried in the middle of the mix, Bachmann lets himself be surrounded by the guitar swell he used to bark and scream over. Some topics are eternal: The languid, spacey “Aimee” gets lost in love, and “Misinformation Age” complains about a media landscape that’s only gotten more annoying in the previous two decades.
He’s also rethought his songwriting. Where once the guitars jabbed and poked, here they expand and surround, all distortion and wash. Songs drift and rush like slow moving storm clouds–a little punk blast here, a little indie crash there. Bassist Matt Gentling and drummer Mark Price have only gotten better, backing up Bachmann’s worries like thunderous old pals, the kind that buy another round before you’re done crying into the first.
Mostly, he’s got some advice for his generation. “Saturation and Light” scorns withdrawing in disgust, while the buzzing “Mama Was a War Profiteer” reflects on generations of wars in the Middle East. “Screaming Undercover” recalls the choral riff from old-school Australian punks the Saints’ “Stranded” to rage at false hope: “Everybody’s dreaming but the dream is a lie.” But this band’s return remind us that some dreams don’t quite die the way God planned.