From their humble beginnings as a new folk trio opening for Mumford & Sons to a band that’s selling out headlining shows, Bear’s Den has been one of my favorite acts to follow and cheer on for the past few years. Like many American fans, I first learned about them during Mumford & Sons’ 2013 stint in the U.S. and I quickly fell in love with their raw lyrics and emotive acoustic sound. Their evolution since then has been a delight to watch. They’ve released three mighty EPs (one of which was only available for purchase at their live shows, though), put out a triumphant debut album in 2014, and have received nods in publications like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.
In the spring of 2016 Bear’s Den announced a new album, Red Earth and Pouring Rain, due out this summer and teased with tiny audio clips of a few select songs. Short as these teasers were, they hinted at a shift in the band’s sound, which was confirmed with the release of the first single, the synth-y, drum machine-y “Auld Wives.” Some elements of the band’s beloved original sound–acoustic guitar and banjo especially–were still present, but they now played only a supporting role in the mostly-electronic backdrop. I was a little unsure of this new sound, but after listening to “Auld Wives” a few more times, I was sold and excited for the rest of the album.
Red Earth and Pouring Rain does indeed mark a departure for Bear’s Den, but not a sudden one. Their last EP, Without/Within, and their first album, Islands, were sprinkled with atmospheric synth effects and riffs while maintaining the acoustic folk sound that I and many other fans had grown to love. But as “Auld Wives” hinted, their second album flips that around. Drum machines, electric guitar, and catchy synth riffs transform Bear’s Den from a gentle folk band to bold indie rockers. The first time I listened to Red Earth and Pouring Rain I couldn’t help but relish the very 1980s feel of some of their songs, such as the title track, “Emeralds,” and “Broken Parable.” The old-school sound came as no surprise, though; in the months leading up to the album’s release, the band updated their public Spotify playlist to include such iconic songs as “The Boys of Summer” by Don Henley and “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Tears For Fears. And Bear’s Den has revealed that artists such as Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, and The Eagles, among others, served as inspiration for their second album (those artists are present on that playlist as well). Their influence shows; the third track on the album, “Dew on the Vine,” is reminiscent of Bruce’s “Dancing in the Dark,” especially when the bridge kicks in (its synthesizer riff is very Bruce-ish and the lyrics include the phrase “it’s like lightning trying to put out a spark.” I can’t be the only one who likened that to “you can’t start a fire without a spark,” can I?).
But don’t call Red Earth and Pouring Rain an homage or a throw-back to a bygone musical era. Bear’s Den proves, as they did with Islands, that they are serious and thoughtful musical and lyrical craftsmen. In discussing how the album came about, lead singer/guitarist Andrew Davie and multi-instrumentalist Kevin Jones (they are now a duo; banjoist Joey Haynes left the band recently, though after the album was complete) said that they had the image of driving at night in mind as they wrote and recorded the album. This probably explains the album’s cover and the overall dark mood and feel of its songs. Everything from the songs’ swelling electric guitar and drum work (“Fortress” is an excellent example of this), its sometimes-ethereal percussion (apparently captured, as one behind-the-scenes Facebook video shows, by the band using an oil barrel as a drum), and its simple airy ballads (“Napoleon” and “Gabriel”) combine to create a brooding masterpiece. And the dark feel pairs well with lyrics that are intimate, visceral, and wrenching. Many songs address a lover and give the impression of a relationship that’s distant or troubled. The haunting and gorgeous “Love Can’t Stand Alone” seems to be about the struggle to maintain trust and transparency after the loss of a child. And “Gabriel” tells of the narrator’s shadow-self, a part of him that he tries to hide but always shows up (“It’s just a shadow/Cast from all the light/Where I go/He’s never far behind.”). The very title of the album, Red Earth and Pouring Rain, is raw, passionate, and sensual. Not that the album is provocative, but the title makes you feel something. Bear’s Den set out with a goal with this album, a mood that they wanted to achieve, and they did it without it feeling forced. And it’s breathtaking, and yes, quite good for driving at night.
Red Earth and Pouring Rain is, overall, a triumph, and it’s sure to continue solidifying Bear’s Den as indie folk stardom.