"I am reborn now baby, haven’t you heard?” sings Jakob Battick over the stark and affectless opening chords of “Brand New Thunderbird Blues.” It’s the opening track from his new album To Be Born Again & Again, and his hopeful, mournful, slow-boiled croon is familiar to Portland ears.
Nearly 10 years ago, the Phoenix received a package from Battick in some artfully hand-rendered, twine-bound cardboard pouch. It contained a self-produced CD-R with a thoughtful, handwritten note in (what I recall) bearing distinct formal handwriting. I don’t remember what it said, but it was gracious and kind — a little affectatious, maybe, but only because its author was interested in making bold choices, and those choices weren’t exclusively culled from the traditions of the environment we were living in.
The recordings it bore were a batch of achingly slow ballads from a young Battick, then billed as Jakob Battick and Friends, who had moved to Portland from Bangor. Later, Battick would be reawakened in the form of AFRAID, a project that seemed to filter his avant-folk songs through a filter of electronica and noise sounds lifted from Southern hip-hop aesthetics. AFRAID released an album in 2015 (Sinister Vibes) and a split with Portland’s ethereal homedog Jared Fairfield last year (Eternal Motherfucker II) — though it’s unclear (at least from here) what the band has been up to since a summer tour in 2017.
All of this is to say that Battick is a lifer. Those early songs might have lacked the definition and depth he displays here, but he’s been writing these avant-country/folk songs for ages. In all of them, Battick plays the central figure, while the music acts as a sort of centripetal force, often stirring him into a sort of catharsis. He’s an artist playing with the mythology of the ego making music in a tradition of experimentalism that typically obscures it. Looking back, it’s shocking he lasted as long as he did in Portland.
Recorded in Berkeley in early 2017 and mastered in Portland with Big Blood’s Caleb Mulkerin, To Be Born Again & Again feels channeled from the mouth of another head from the same hydra whose altar Battick’s been worshipping this last decade. Its wide-eyed, palms-up country tracks are stripped of the formulations of electronica that AFRAID’s been messing around with the last few years. Instead, Battick delivers with a near psychotic degree of reverence and calm, five originals and two covers spanning roughly 45 minutes of achingly simple songs that could only be performed by someone who's been to the edge and back.
Besides the opener and stand out track “No More Wild Horses,” the darkly sweet “Don’t Die On Me Now” is a seemingly love-sick ballad burnt at the edges, with a slide guitar recalling the better early tracks from Michael Gira’s post-Swans project Angels of Light. Battick’s rendition of “Tonight I Think I’m Gonna Go Downtown” by Jimmie Dale Gilmore lays bare the original’s deep-set loneliness, while his cover of Waylon Jennings’ “Lonesome, On’ry and Mean,” here pushing 12 minutes, is the album’s pulsing heart, an open-road reveler.
This was prophesied by a mostly-covers album released in May, where Battick took on tracks from Neil Young, Roky Erickson, and Spacemen 3. Those are useful touchstones, but Battick’s been doing this slow-motion ethereal folk for long enough now that it’s fair to call him a singular presence. I don’t know what he’s going to find here — I can’t see what he sees — but with as many lives as he’s burned up seeking it, I’m beginning to have faith.
To Be Born Again & Again | by Jakob Battick | album release with Ash & Herb + Forêt Endormie | Oct 21 | Sun 8 pm | The Apohadion Theater, 107 Hanover St, Portland | $8 | jakobbattick.bandcamp.com/album/to-be-born-again-again