In his last album, I’m Your Man, Harlan T. Bobo rasped out his desire for a more settled existence in a line from “My Life,” admitting, “I’d love to have a family and a home” in the verse and finishing the guitar-blistered finale with a repeated longing for “someone to love.” Since that 2007 release, the Memphis blues eccentric has, in fact, gotten married and fathered a son. He now spends summers, apparently, scooping ice cream at his French wife’s beach-side ice cream stand. It sounds like a reasonably happy life, and this sense of contentment reverberates throughout Bobo’s third album, beginning right up front with the string and brass-embellished Franco-phile pop, “Sweet Life.” “It took so, so long to understand,” sings Bobo, in his tarnished but noticeably hopeful murmur, “life is sweet.”
This sweetness creeps, not just into the lyrics, but into the tone and arrangements of Sucker. There’s a sunny expansiveness to these songs that markedly contrasts with noire-ish tunes from his Too Much Love debut, or I’m Your Man. Where Bobo’s past tunes tended to slouch along on 12/8 blues progressions, with a drift of spoke-sung vocals hanging above, a stab of slide guitar as punctuation, these are more overtly tuneful and densely arranged. Jonathan Kirkscey, from the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, sits in on cello on the lilting opener. Three violinists – Jessie Munson, Roy Brewer and Tess Nelson – trade off string duties on three tracks. This is in addition to a full band of rock instruments – besides Bobo himself, John Paul Keith plays guitar, Jeremy Scott bass, Paul Buchignani plays drums and Tim Prudhomme (of Fuck) contributes voice and additional percussion.
Even Bobo’s singing seems lighter and more buoyant, less a series of sideways observations, more a thread of casual melody. On the sparser, finger-picked tunes – “Old Man” and “Errand Girl” – he has a bit of Bert Jansch’s ruminative depth. On the rockers – and “Bad Boyfriends” is the most fun, though “Energy” runs a close second – he sounds like a rougher, madder Nick Lowe, though the guitar work slants more toward the garage soul of the Oblivians. “Drank” splits the difference, starting out in little more than a sunny whisper, something of The Kinks’ “Ape Man” in the ramshackle beat, then unexpectedly turns loud and fuzzy and rock toward the end.
Happy albums aren’t always good albums, and even when they’re pretty good, they tend to lack the bite and drive of work from less satisfied periods in artists’ lives. (Clem Snide’s The Soft Spot is a pretty good example of this second case.) However, even in his most bourgeoisie moments of contentment, Bobo is so skewed and individual that he remains fascinating. The album finishes with Bobo singing in uncertain French, a silly little ditty instantly translated in the chorus about a cat that eats butter. It’s light as air, engaging and utterly off-center. Life is sweet in Sucker, but fortunately, still odd enough not to cloy.