An American couple backpacking in Bolivia got off a bus and hiked nine miles into the city of Tarija. They arrived as the sun came up, but everything was shut down. The roads were barricaded by vehicles parked nose-to-tail. It was a paro, a government worker strike, and it was total.
Brice Randall Bickford and his wife, Lara Khalil, had never seen anything like it before. The thirty-seven-year-old songwriter recalls the scene from the upstairs den of his home in a wooded Durham neighborhood as he spins quiet, gentle records and sips a beer while the daylight wanes. A copy of his latest LP leans face-out near the turntable.
"You couldn't get in; you couldn't get out," he says.
In the months before arriving in Tarija, Bickford had become fascinated by soft-science books that attempted to explain the ills that come with society's ambitions, including Spencer Wells's Pandora's Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization, which casts advanced society as a psyche-wrecking blight.
Bickford, having lived in both New York City and Washington, D.C., has felt those metropolitan pains firsthand. His time in D.C. in particular led him to wonder what was so wrong with urban existence and, ultimately, civilization itself. Wells's theory that we're out of sync because our technology evolves faster than our biology was so compelling to Bickford that he and Khalil decided to quit their jobs and skip town.
In Tarija, Bickford felt like he was witnessing an expression of Wells's scenario: the machines had stopped and a modern city was in complete shutdown, the streets filled with people on foot. Human civilization appeared to be scuttling itself. Bickford and Khalil found themselves isolated there, in a city four thousand miles away from home, stranded by the strike.
"Alienation is kind of the bread and butter of the songwriter," Bickford says, "But I don't think many people have approached alienation like, 'What if you can explain it?'"
Beholding the almost apocalyptic scene of the Bolivian paro crystallized Bickford's latest musical treatise, which he releases on Saturday. He's been making albums as The Strugglers since 2001, but the expansive Paro is the second record he's released under his own name. In "The First Grain," citing Pandora's Seed, Bickford dates the genesis of alienation to the first cultivated plant, singing, "The first time thinking I don't belong/ you didn't know the half of it." The song is a mixture of folk-rock and cosmic country, like Nick Cave meets Beck's Morning Phase.
Paro was also informed by other what-if sociology books like Cacilda Jethá and Christopher Ryan's Sex at Dawn and Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel. The unifying theme of these works is simply that if the symptoms of civilization include the oppression of women and widespread feelings of disconnection, then it probably isn't our greatest achievement after all.
"Whether it's true or not, I've always been really riveted by things like The Matrix—'Oh, this is the theory that explains everything,'" Bickford says. "It's like, what if once we became agrarians it led to this need to impose structure on things? It compounds problem upon problem, and you end up coming up with solutions to problems that end up becoming worse than the problem to begin with."
Bickford and Khalil, two self-described "bourgeois backpackers," set off across Peru, Bolivia, and Chile on a three-month trek that would eventually lead to Tarija. In early 2012, the couple returned to North Carolina, where they'd first met. Several months later, Bickford had the skeleton of Paro. It just took him several years to get the record the way he wanted it.
"They're very painstakingly written songs," he says. "Every word has been put on trial, every song has been labored over quite a bit."
Durham producer Scott Solter lent Bickford a big hand with Paro's labor. The themes of the record spoke to him immediately, though he notes he's a bit of an anarchist anyway.
"The fundamental narrative of this album is the exploitative tendency that humans have toward each other," Solter says, speaking from a music farm in a New Mexico desert. He recalls driving around Bickford's hometown of Danville, Virginia, with a mutual friend and witnessing decaying, abandoned buildings, fallout from a long-gone developer's failed efforts.
"If hatred for that is a desire to go back to nature, then I'm all for it," Solter says.
Bickford credits Solter with more than just secondary studio work on Paro. The two went through several sets of session musicians before finally finding a backing band that understood the kind of negative space the album needed. From hearing the raw tracks, Solter knew Paro deserved smart arrangements and subtle experimentation.
The slow tempos of the songs begged for something huge and cinematic, yet nothing so lazily composed as the plug-in drones he encounters in too much electroacoustic music. Solter instructed the session players to draw electric tones out of acoustic instruments, and as he realized the sonic landscape required more ethereal sounds, added bowed piano. Then he brought Bickford, his voice almost unadorned, to the fore.
As a visual translation of his approach, Solter says to picture a film scene with an actor standing in front of an accelerated cityscape. The actor speaks at a normal speed as the lights and activity rush by, too fast to process. Now imagine Bickford as the actor, his considered, sincere lyrics like a direct conversation in the shifting chaos.
"He has such a beautiful, melodious voice and it's his natural voice," Solter says. "There's no pretense. This is who Randy is."
Paro isn't a manifesto, Bickford is sure to say—he doesn't want us to throw away ten thousand years of history and become hunter-gatherers again. He was simply processing what, to him, believably explains why the modern, advanced world makes so many people feel heartsick, awful, and shut out.
Paro has another meaning, too, with a literal translation of "I stop." Every time Bickford makes a record, he considers those words as well: Will this one be the last? Opening track "Fatal Vision" is about Bickford's anxieties about the death of his own artistic drive.
"There's been a fair amount of space between each record, and each record was like, 'Maybe this will be my last statement,'" Bickford says.
He has new songs, sure, but he wonders if he'll be able to build the necessary infrastructure to do right by them. With every outing, he raises the bar for himself, meaning anything in the future will have to surpass Paro. Yet it also sounds like he's come to a place of openness and self-confidence, both with Paro and his life, which could inspire albums for years to come.
Now a father of a five-month-old, Bickford is still coming to terms with parenthood. He doesn't know what he wants to say about it or how he'll write honestly and without cliché about Isaac, the infant with big, questing eyes who arrived exactly four years after Bickford and Khalil returned from South America. Bickford says he feels younger in some ways than he has in a long time, and finds himself more open to beauty and profundity anywhere he finds it.
More music may be waiting down the line, or Paro could be his "I stop" statement. One thing's for sure: if there's another record, it won't—and shouldn't—come quickly. To fully process a concept like alienation or an experience like the paro in Tarija, Bickford needs time.
"Like most travel, the real value is in retrospect," he says.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Metropolitan Malaise"