There’s a decent-sized chance that at one time you might have heard Haley Bonar, even if you don’t consciously remember it. For 13 years, the St. Paul-based singer-songwriter has been steadily putting out new music — sometimes on record labels, sometimes on her own. Most of Bonar’s albums are classified as “folk” or by the even less glamorous tag “alt-country.” She’s never quite arrived or completely faded away — like so many journeyman artists with thankless careers, she’s just sort of existed. In 2011, Bonar signed with Graveface, a Georgia-based label best-known for the sinister bubblegum psychedelia of Black Moth Super Rainbow, and began pushing her music in a louder, more attention-grabbing direction. With the new LP Last War she’s under the unlikely guise of confessional garage-pop troubadour, and it suits her.
The songs on Last War were written while the 31-year-old Bonar was enduring a series of so-called “mini apocalypses” that included having her first child and her perpetual struggle to stay afloat as a working musician. “No Sensitive Man” is a stinging and darkly funny snapshot of the latter, skewering the “wolves in sheep’s clothing” populating the music business. “From a Cage” (featuring backing vocals from Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon) is a similarly evocative portrait of romantic strife, with Bonar expertly dressing down an ex: “I’m not your mother/ and you’re not a child/ honey, we weren’t even friends.”
But no matter the insight Bonar puts into her lyrics, Last War is focused primarily on sound — specifically, driving, synth-accented, often angry and electrified rock. Bonar proves herself a natural at spooky, darkly-hued new wave on hooky tracks like “Woke Up in My Future” and “Heaven’s Made for Two.” Only on the final song “Eat For Free” does Bonar return to a stripped-down, guitar-only arrangement, though she does let the song’s climactic line — “We eat for free/ to put on a show for everyone” — slowly build from a murmured mantra to a booming affirmation of surviving in the music business, with or without just rewards.