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First Listen: Haley Bonar, 'Last War'

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