In Canada (which, let’s face it, is a country packed with musicians who are underrated on the international stage), there is simply no musician more criminally underrated and under-appreciated than Art Bergmann. Since first appearing on the Vancouver punk and indie rock scenes in the eighties, Bergmann has regularly had to fight to get popular notice, not because the guitarist needed time to mature artistically, but because he has simply always been in the wrong place at the wrong time – always on the cusp of popular exposure and appeal, but always under the radar. It has been more than a little heartbreaking to watch (particularly when the singer quit the business for about three years after his great What Fresh Hell Is This album failed to break through), but those who have been won by Bergmann always look on excitedly whenever the announcement of a new album comes along.
That was certainly true in 2016 when the singer released The Apostate (which was Bergmann’s first new album in eighteen years) and, while the album held up Bergmann’s release history (read: it was appreciated, but not to the extent that the album deserved), it has proven to be a slow cooker capable of making an enduring impression and winning more and more fans as listeners find it. That sense of discovery may receive another shot in the arm now as Bergmann’s ninth album, Remember Her Name, begins to draw popular notice, and may mean that the singer finally will get to enjoy the sort of reception that he so richly deserves.
All of the glowing praise above isn’t meant to contend that The Apostate is the typical album (whatever that might mean) from Art Bergmann, however. From the moment a needle sinks into “Atheist Prayer,” listeners are met by an uncharacteristically sleepy sound and arrangement which, for those who know Bergmann and are familiar with his style, feels totally new and fresh and compelling as a result. Here, the singer walks sleepily through a gentle and dreamy mid-tempo progression colored perfectly with added keyboards, thick but understated bass and brushed drums. This is the kind of track that it’s easy to work one’s way into and find calm at the center of, and listeners will discover that it’s easy to adore straight away, long before the song reaches its five-and-a-half-minute limit, Bergmann will already have listeners held dearly instead of seeming to be geared up to take over the world, as he normally would be.
While it starts very gently, it doesn’t take long for The Apostate to start developing into a thoroughly unique entity, unbound by conventional musical progressions and temperament. Immediately following “Atheist Prayer,” Bergmann begins to push into an almost Hendrix-esque direction complete with odd vocal chants and reversed guitar passages to start before soldiering and stomping into “Mirage” (which lives up to the hypnotic and “dry desert” implications of its name) and then instantly shifting gears through a piano-dominated ballad (“Cassandra”) before re-settling down on “The Greatest Story Never Told” with the help of a squeezebox and a sweet, heartfelt lyric sheet (check out lines like “He used to love the way she wore her disdain for the world to see/ She loved his hopeless slouch and smoking lips curled in agony”) to close out the album’s A-side.
Track-by-track and turn-by-turn, the A-side of The Apostate lives up to the ‘no bullshit’ sonic palate that Bergmann built his name and status on in punk rock, but the sound is obviously very different from before. Slower, wiser and more clearly refined, this side is the work of a punk who lived long enough to grow up, but also developed the discipline to translate the singer’s aged disposition for a larger audience which reaches well beyond the community from which Bergmann sprang.
Perhaps because the A-side of The Apostate ended on such a sombre note, the B-side opens with a great relief in the form of “Live It Up.” There, Bergmann echoes the likes of Paul Westerberg and Bob Mould as he imports some obvious guitar-pop caprice into a nervous setting which wears its heart on its sleeve – but doesn’t exactly want to be seen that way. Rather, it stays sweet, bright and soulful as Bergmann revels in the moment and refuses to think it’ll ever last (“Live it up – we’re gonna die” says it all) and never once moves an inch or implies that anything good might happen with further development.
After that, “A Town Called Mean” shifts gears and gets flat-out miserable (see lines like “Evil has found a home for me/ in a town called Mean”) before getting heartwarming with the help of a weeping violin and a “moving West” vision through the nine-minute epic “Pioneers” before finally closing with the late-night campfire vibe of “The Legend Of Bobby Bird.” There, Bergmann simply allows the last of the energy which powered The Apostate to run off carelessly – daring listeners to chase it as it goes. Bergmann pantomimes exhaustion and lets his voice crack through every stanza of the song’s lyric sheet, inspiring listeners to hold the singer up and protect him as the last fatalist moments trickle away.
It’s an incredible, and incredibly effective, ploy; as listeners’ turntables run out the last of “Bobby Bird” and the needle finally lifts from the album, those who went front-to-back with it will already be ready to do it again. The beauty and romance of The Apostate is absolute – just one time through the running can never, will never be enough to satiate listeners.
After they’ve run through the whole album and discovered that (yes) they’ve been hooked, listeners will realize that now is the perfect time and place for Art Bergmann to stage a comeback. With bands like The Hold Steady and players like Paul Westerberg, Tommy Stinson and Daniel Romano turning the soil and planting a fresh crop of folk and alt-country for a fresh crew of punks to tend AND vinyl having the presence it does in the music market, there is absolutely, positively no way that The Apostate can lose. This album is the perfect thing to put Art Bergmann on the map for a whole new generation of listeners; all it has to be is in the right place for them to find it. [Bill Adams]