The Wife – Bad Habits (2012)

Complex and brutally honest, Swedish band the Wife’s Bad Habits delineates the hard journey we all make through this world, yet finds a way in the end to make peace with its most difficult moments.

The group gets much of its core sound from the spooky jangle associated with Neil Young’s Harvest recordings, but with a rawly emotional singer in Natalie Johansson whose endlessly malleable voice recalls by turns Lucinda Williams, Janis Joplin, Melissa Etheridge and Grace Slick.

She’s matched stride for stride on tracks like “On a Black Horse” by Kristoffer Johansson’s guitar, as he provides this ringing counterpoint to her lyrics, adding new dimensions to tales of desperate longing, hard choices and unvarnished love.

In keeping, the album typically unfolds very quietly, appearing as if out of nowhere in a crepuscular mystery. There’s “The Wife”: As dark as any Civil War ballad, it’s presented in a somnambulant daze straight out of Mazzy Star’s debut – but with a vocal by Johansson that quivers with far more emotion. The title track has all of the toughness of Slick’s big-voiced early rockers, but with the broken honesty of Williams at her most confessional. “Playground” and, in particular, “Diamond Eyes” might have worked as some of the more contemplative moments on a Melissa Etheridge project, while “Sprung a Leak” and “Waste Some Time” find Natalie rarely rising above a thick-skinned whisper.

Not that Bad Habits is all twilit ruminations. In fact, the Wife is just as adept at these nifty Americana grooves – moments that give Johansson a chance to really stretch out as a vocalist. Still, even then, the band approaches roots rock on its own, very complex terms – and Bad Habits is all the better for it. For instance, even as drummer Kristofer Fredriksson sparks “You Saved Us” with this snappy, country-rock cadence, the song lays out difficult realizations about a broken relationship where the lovers were better off apart. Natalie Johansson barks and coos with Joplin’s rough majesty on “Back and Forth.” Yet as that track is pushed forward by Marcus Blomqvist’s bass thump, it also takes a deeply nostalgic turn once Natalie picks up her harmonica.

Similarly, “The Train” sounds on its surface, like a gypsy jazz number. As Kristoffer tangles happily with Blomqvist, though, Natalie Johansson keeps digging deeper – finding first the sensual center of the lyric and then (within her improvisational scat) something else the feels somehow broken. “The Playground” moves along with an elegant shamble, as Natalie admits: “I know that I might seem messy to you, but you are what makes my heart rich.” She embraces desire on “We Don’t Know,” but not before facing up to her own propensity to run: “My eyes have seen a lot of sweet roses; still, these legs have never failed me.” The title of the Dylan-esque put-down song “It’s Not You, It’s Me” perhaps says it all.

Johansson eventually finds a way to let go, if only ever so briefly, on “Diamond Eyes” – though a stop-start rhythm and circular guitar figure end up creating this thrilling sense of unsettled dissonance, anyway. Kristoffer Johansson then rips off a tart, blues-soaked solo, adding another layer of atmosphere to a song already bathed in pathos. Natalie’s then joined by a delicately conveyed group of strings on “Time You Spend,” an introspective tune that nicely sets up the finale of Bad Habits.

Angular, but stubbornly forward-looking, “Step Outside” pushes past every bad memory, every broken-hearted mistake, every moment of fear or regret: “You can’t say you can’t, when you didn’t even try,” Natalie sings with this hard-eyed sense of optimism.

It’s a perfectly conveyed ending to a complex but very satisfying journey.

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Nick DeRiso

Over a 30-year career, Nick DeRiso has also explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz, Ultimate Classic Rock and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.