Singer-songwriter Chauncey Bowers’ sly new album, The Benefit of Doubt, dives back into the metaphysically corkscrewed universe of his 2014 debut, Rumors of Reason. Lead single “Circus” rhapsodizes about a traveling funhouse inhabited by drifters, grifters, gamblers, rafter-clinging clowns, and a suspicious strongman. While venturing deeper into familiar thematic ground, “Circus” and The Benefit of Doubt also encompass broader sonic fields than Bowers has previously explored.
“I like the breadth of songs on this album. It’s a little embarrassing how long it took me to make it,” Bowers wisecracks. He started workshopping much of the material before the pandemic. The cheerily macabre “Blame Bill” was already a staple of his live shows, and he developed songs such as “Circus,” “Great for You,” and “My Bad” onstage during regular appearances at Brad Colerick’s Wine & Song showcase series in South Pasadena, where Bowers is a longtime audience favorite.
On the album, which is being released on Colerick’s Back 9 label, the irreverent “Game of Chance” is brightened by banjoists Bill Knopf and Oscar Hills and the spirited yodeling of country songbird Alice Wallace. Bowers’ intuitive fretwork is undergirded by producer Ed Tree and simpatico players, including keyboardist Marty Axelrod, bassists Taras Prodaniuk, Chad Watson, and Steve Nelson, percussionists Scott Babcock and Ramon Yslas, and string arranger Skip Edwards.
The influence of songwriting heroes Randy Newman and John Prine can be discerned in Bowers’ biting wit and wordplay. That’s true whether he’s tipping a hat to Newman on the time-shifting rocker “Brothers” or depicting an otherworldly encounter with a vampire on “We Danced” (“And we danced without direction/ It gave illusion we were free/ With moonlight just reflection/ The truth is hard to see”). The growling rocker “Love” pays bucket-list homage to the Allman Brothers with harmony guitars and a brief song-ending riff. “That’s something I’ve wanted to include in a song for 40 years. I used to hear them in Atlanta and loved what they did with the dual guitars.
“Often, in my very first line, I try to say something that makes the audience want to listen to the next thing,” Bowers says. Take the provocative opening of “Blame Bill” where a roped-and-tied protagonist addresses a “psycho girl with ADD : “This would be less awkward if I knew your name/ Forgiveness is hard to offer until you know who to blame.” Consider, too, “Mardi Gras” (“Look at those people down there/ Don’t get those thoughts in your head/ Singing so loud no one can hear/ Just remember they’re nothing like you”), whose conversational tone belies the gravity of the racism that inspired it.“That’s one of the few that really comes right out of me growing up in the South,” explains Bowers, who grew up in Mississippi and Georgia before studying at Harvard and working for decades as a research scientist in California. “Racism is not usually an angry mob or even overt anger. It's more insidious; it’s this incessant undermining… When I was growing up in the South, racism was in the air, you had to breathe it every day. Hell, even compliments had a patronizing toxicity about them.”
Bowers didn’t consciously make an album with a theme, but a suggestion of risk and longing for escape emerges from several tracks, including the moody kiss-off “Walking Away” (“Do you see this scar/ It’s been here all along/ Not from you, from a time long gone/ But it’s why I’m walking away”). Burnished by Lisa Turner’s soulful harmonies, it’s a strikingly poignant addition to Bowers’ oeuvre delivered from the perspective of a strong, realistic woman.
The album’s title intentionally does not appear in any lyrics, but The Benefit of Doubt conveys the sense of uncertainty coupled with curiosity, emblematic of the worldview presented in these twelve songs. “‘Rapture’ is really just a premise for dancing, having a good time; let’s celebrate because it came and went and why not. With ‘My Bad’ or even ‘Brothers,’ it’s just that you may or may not believe what you see,” says Bowers, who approaches situations with a scientist’s detached analysis of empirical fact. “The title comes from a conversation I had years ago with a fundamentalist. They had ‘faith-based facts,’ and I was trying to reference evidence-based facts. Somewhere along the way they asked, ‘Why are you thinking the scientist idea of the world is any better than the Bible?’ I just said, ‘Scientists have the benefit of doubt.’
“That’s what it boils down to: this context of how I see the world. At the heart of knowing something is uncertainty; you can’t really know something if you’re not uncertain to begin with. That’s fundamentally the difference between belief and evidence. You don’t stop thinking like a scientist just because you’re not in the lab. It’s how I look at the world, and I want to communicate with other people in this way. When people at shows respond that they like it and recognize something of themselves in it, I feel reassured by that. It’s like, We’re OK. We’re all the same species. It’s a real communion for me.”