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Touring the World, but Always Lost

Eric Bachmann wrote his new album while living in the back of his van.
Eric Bachmann wrote his new album while living in the back of his van.

Throughout his career, the work of singer-songwriter Eric Bachmann hasn't exactly radiated warmth, whether he was unfurling surly screeds as lead singer of Archers of Loaf or re-creating himself as a crooning indie-rock Neil Diamond with Crooked Fingers. It makes sense that Bachmann's remarkable new To the Races marks his first conventional album as a solo act: Shedding the prickly remoteness that has made him an acquired taste, he crafts a spare collection that pairs his gruff, world-weary lyrics with a newfound approachability.

That's not to suggest that Bachmann has lost his gift for grimness. On To the Races' glorious opener, "Man O' War," he tours ships, seas and ruins while pausing to impart a few fatalistic lessons: "Like the moon doesn't mind / if the sun doesn't shine / the sea doesn't care / if you're lonesome tonight." Accompanied by Miranda Brown's hauntingly lovely background vocal, Bachmann takes a sort of world tour of alienation, where land and sea are equally imposing.

Bachmann wrote the songs on To the Races while spending last summer living in his van — probably not a jarring lifestyle change for an indie-rock touring musician, but still — so it's no surprise that the album showcases an acute understanding of solitude, literal and otherwise. He may have all the freedom in the world, and write songs about sailing the high seas, but Bachmann also knows better than most what it's like to be lost wherever he goes.

Listen to yesterday's 'Song of the Day.'

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Stephen Thompson
Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)