If you ask Bobby Bare Jr., he'll say his latest record, Undefeated, isn't really the breakup record it's advertised as.
"I say it's a getting-dumped record more than anything," Bare admits when reached at his home in Nashville. "And what was really clear is that the girl I was breaking up with — well, the girl that was breaking up with me — did not want to hear anything about my feelings at all. So the only place I had to put them was in the songs. So that's what I ended up writing."
Undefeated isn't the first time Bare's written about personal heartbreak. He has mined love and loss — mostly the latter — for much of his career. To wit, a few songs from Bare's previous record, 2010's A Storm, A Tree, My Mother's Head, dealt with his bitter divorce from his first wife, the mother of the two oldest of his three children. Early on in the writing process, Bare was on a date with a woman after getting dumped by his ex-girlfriend, the mother of his youngest child; still reeling, he wrote some words on a napkin: "If she cared where I was/ Then I wouldn't be with you right now." The line forms the crux of "If She Cared," Undefeated's most affecting ballad.
But the album isn't all doleful, sad-eyed sentiment. Its 10 tracks meander through sweltering rock (the bleary "North of Alabama By Mornin'"), mirror-ball soul ("Undefeated"), piano-led and British-style power-pop ("Blame Everybody (But Yourself)"), and crescendo-ing folk ("As Forever Became Never Again"). There are even moments of great levity, like the tongue-in-cheek "My Baby Took My Baby Away." Co-penned by country singer Hayes Carll, the song is a fantastic account of the things that happen once your lover turns all of her attention toward your newborn and takes it away from you.
"[Babies are] like having a really bad roommate," Bare laughs. "They don't give a fuck about nothing, except the bottle. They stumble everywhere they go. They never pay rent. It's crazy."
The song has shot through enough humor and horns to make the message go down without too much of a bite. Indeed, there's plenty of whimsy in Bare's lyrics, but there's also some great emotional heft. His songs are at once poignant and shot-through with mordant wit, something Bare says is a coping mechanism, a kind of laugh-to-keep-from-crying kind of deal helping the singer come to terms with his life's complications.
"A lot of it's funny," he says, "if only for the sake of if I can get a room full of people to laugh along to a subject that scares the shit out of me, it loosens things up a little bit. All my records are about the scariest shit I can think of, and I'm airing that out in front of strangers."
Consider the caustic kiss-off "The Big Time." Over boisterous bar-room piano, rollicking drums, and punchy brass arrangements, Bare makes big-city boasts to his lover. By the end of the song, he's downright mean ("If you see me on the street/ and you try to talk to me, I'll say/ 'You have mistaken me for someone else'").
"That's a fun song to sing every night, until the audience starts to believe every word that I'm saying," Bare laughs. "Then they stop liking me. They realize that I've thought about this a lot, and that I'm delivering it with conviction."
But conviction's to be expected, given Bare's pedigree. His father is renegade country singer and Country Music Hall of Famer Bobby Bare, and his mother is singer Jeanie Bare. Growing up, his next-door neighbors were Tammy Wynette and George Jones, and his songwriting mentor was Shel Silverstein. From Silverstein he picked up a proclivity for poetry and a penchant for phrasing; from his father, he inherited the value of songwriting and storytelling. So Bare might have a cockeyed view of the world, but he doesn't shroud that view with vagueness.
"It's the most honest stuff I have to offer," Bare says. "And that's what people want to hear. It's like, if I wasn't that real about airing the ugliest parts of things, it's like going to see a stripper who doesn't show you the ugly parts, you know? People are there to see the uglies. If you don't show the uglies, you're not really coming off of anything. You're just prancing around."
"Not many people are capable of ... participating in that much ugly," Bare adds. "But that's what separates the real artists from the ones who just want to be cool."