Tracy Bonham may take her sweet time between albums, but she has yet to deliver a record that hasn’t been worth the years-long gestation period. Bonham’s latest, Masts of Manhatta, is her fourth full-length album since 1996’s The Burdens of Being Upright and its caustic single “Mother Mother” launched her to the top of modern rock playlists. With each successive release, Bonham has moved further away from the post-grunge buzz bin, incorporating her classical violin and piano training into more forward-thinking rock styles.
On Masts of Manhatta, Bonham drew inspiration from her attempts to divide her time between living in Brooklyn and Woodstock, and her time spent away from the city has drawn some elements of contemporary folk into her songs. “When You Laugh, the World Laughs with You” and “In the Moonlight” stand as a departure for Bonham, who typically grounds her biting wit in more ragged, aggressive arrangements. With its gently strummed acoustic guitars and jaunty pop melody, “In the Moonlight” sounds like a long-lost Wilco song. But Bonham’s cockeyed observations about a society of cows that appears to glow in the moonlight and Bartles & James wine coolers that clouded her judgment make the song recognizably hers.
Throughout the album, Bonham adapts her trademark smartassery into some new songwriting conventions. If “We Moved Our City to the Country” is a bit too on the nose (with lines like “Our kids will make friends with local kids/And they’ll LOL a lot/Won’t let them go outside/Until they finish all of their sushi”), it’s nonetheless impressive to see Bonham challenging herself. And to her credit, she hits her marks more often than not. The violin line that runs through opener “Devil’s Got Your Boyfriend” gives the song a baroque flourish, while standout “Josephine” uses a stabbing, staccato string arrangement, distorted electric guitars, and a tuba to heighten the tension in a narrative that uses a wicked carnival as its central metaphor. Bonham understands song structure and how careful arrangements can elevate a song, but “Boyfriend” and “You’re My Is-Ness” prove her equally important understanding of pop conventions. For a record that, thematically, trades in adaptation to new environments, Masts of Manhatta boasts real structural depth, as Bonham finds an effective balance of contemporary folk and modern rock.