In 2005, sole constant Struggler Randy Bickford told me if his latest record, You Win, didn't help him build a career, he'd likely make one more record, tour behind it and call it an attempt. Three years later, Bickford's wider reputation remains mostly unchanged: His stately Southern tenor draws constrictive comparisons to Will Oldham and Bill Callahan, though his contemplative songs and concise arrangements are separate avenues aiming for different effects. In an indie rock climate where gimmicks and garishness ensure audiences, workmanlike songwriting that, like Bickford's, is more subservient to craft than concept tends to go ignored. He doesn't bend his songs into psychedelic half-shapes like fellow Oldham acolyte Phosphorescent, or dress rock songs in symphonic suits like a few dozen indie successes of the moment. So, to pun lazily but appropriately, the struggle continues.
While Bickford remains largely unknown at the release of his fourth full-length, The Latest Rights, he's actually never been better. Bickford's low profile has kept him honest, allowing him to turn a jaundiced eye not only on the world around him but on himself. Time and life have taught him to be opportunistic and dishonest; introspection allowed him to rat himself out. At long last, he's cleared away his lyrical and musical brambles: His writing is lucid, his images sharp, his conclusions swift. And these nine songs—well-built for drums, bass, guitar and keyboards with smartly spare horn and string flourishes—are agile and efficient pop songs borne of trenchant anti-pop sentiment: The world's not perfect, and our protagonist has been self-diagnosed as part of the problem. He's not bitter. He's just upfront.
In fact, whether or not The Latest Rights proves a terminus or simply the start of a slow cessation for The Strugglers—a band that's always treated the trials of melancholy like a reason to continue—it's a brilliant climax. Over these 40 minutes, Bickford explores the smear that carries us from adolescence into adulthood, blotching our innocence and snapping our perspectives in the process. Opener "Morningside Heights" plays on the perils of settling, using a double entendre about forging a home before the song's subject flees for fear that time is running out. Bickford laments being "taught life," the process of imitating our heroes, "the strugglers ... celebrated self-made men." On the title track, Bickford sings, "Youth was a queue/ of turning points that kept everything up ahead/ hidden from view." He's indicting the youthful solipsism and self-love that made him (and us, you can gather. Don't you remember turning 18?) so concerned with the latest rights the world was waiting to hand him. During "Out on the Main Drag," he hangs up his education as he realizes it's a product of borrowing, of bargaining with the world, of trading in part of oneself to be produced by some licensed body. The concept comes into sharp focus and soft relief on "Jonathan," named for Bickford's late cousin: "As soon as you see innocence defined/ it continues to be/ forever/ undermined," he sings, breaking the lines so as to create tiny stalls of suspense as one of the album's most tuneful songs bounces along. But he ends with a hopeful proclamation, selfless encouragement that someone else may have it better than he did. "Jonathan, please listen/ beyond all those lost qualities/ you're still/ in the middle of the making!"
As Bickford hands over these imprecations, his tenor is stable, confident and thin, like a chisel carving the annals of existence into whatever surface he still has time to change. The Latest Rights likely isn't a last testament, even if Bickford is done looking for a music career. This material works because it's personal and passionate. It's more compulsion than careerism at this point, unflinching in its ability to be "one long slow reflection/ staring back at me." Popular audience or no, Bickford's mirror is big enough for most of us to glimpse ourselves, too.
The Strugglers plays Local 506 Friday, April 18, at 10 p.m. The show is free. Max Indian and The Never open.CORRECTION: The word "undermined" in the line "As soon as you see innocence defined/ it continues to be/ forever/ undermined" was misquoted in the print version of this review.