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First Listen: Haley Bonar, 'Last War'

Haley Bonar's new album, <em>Last War</em>, comes out May 20.
Courtesy of the artist
Haley Bonar's new album, Last War, comes out May 20.

Haley Bonar first reached a national audience as a teenager, when fellow Minnesotan Alan Sparhawk heard her perform and offered her a spot on tour, opening for his band Low. At the time, the pairing made sense: Her recordings were sweet and lovely, but also frequently dour. Over time, though, Bonar — in case you were wondering, it's pronounced "Bonner" — has brightened and polished her sound to a glistening shine.

With nine songs in just a shade past half an hour, her new fifth album, Last War, is tough to set aside. It's so breezy and brief, so bright and agreeable in its sound, without a misstep to break the listener's concentration, that it takes a few listens for Bonar's deeply ambivalent lyrics to sink in. "Bad Reputation," for example, registers at first with a hint of swagger, the way songs about having a bad reputation so often do, until you hit a line that's easy to miss at first: "I wish I could date my former self / She'd be a fun girlfriend."

Last War plants these little moments like land mines. "Kill the Fun" positively sparkles as Bonar chronicles her travels with a lover, but she waits a few minutes to reveal the nature of the relationship: "You'll be here till morning / You will get back on the plane / Go back to work / where you never knew my name." As she lets herself slip into fantasies about an unlikely future — about a presumably hopeless desire to "be each other's somebody" — the complexities hit as hard as the hooks. It's a dynamite song, but it leaves a mark.

Virtually every song on Last War strikes that kind of smart, careful balance, which Bonar achieves through equal doses of mystery and charm. A bright, subtle storyteller, she displays a mastery of pop-rock craftsmanship that keeps these songs as relentlessly catchy on the surface as they are alluringly complex underneath.

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Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)