The opening lament on Tom Brosseau's new Grass Punks is as old as the hills: You don't pay attention to me anymore. In a thin, reedy voice that grows more vulnerable as the song unfolds, Brosseau confronts the reality that he no longer commands his beloved's attention. He's been supplanted not by a new affair, but by the smartphone: "I long for you to hold me in your arms," he sings, "but instead, you cradle your device."
The surprisingly hooky "Cradle Your Device" belongs to a growing body of art that examines the human costs and related collateral damage of technology infatuation. It's a hot topic at the moment — see the Spike Jonze film Her, or that viral "I Forgot My Phone" video — and Brosseau, whose songs explore tangled emotional realms with plainspoken directness, captures the frustration perfectly. He's skeptical, then ever so slightly angry, then disbelieving that a mere gadget can hold such power. As the song ends, the North Dakota indie-folk maverick sounds resigned; he's concluded that this is a futile battle.
Brosseau hasn't released a proper set of new songs since 2009's Posthumous Success, and where that album found him flirting, Wilco-style, with modern sonic adornments from loops and keyboards, this one is mostly spare, centered on precise acoustic-guitar needlepoint. Moving in the opposite direction of the tidal wave of rousing earnestness unleashed by Mumford & Sons, he frames his deeply felt melodies with startlingly simple accompaniments. A song like "Tami," the lovely chronicle of a first kiss, might blossom into something torrid and big in a band situation; Brosseau plays it wistful and tender, with commonplace arpeggios and strumming patterns. In the open space he creates, each image of that girl with socks pulled to her knees seems to float gracefully in the air.
This bare-bones guitar approach magnifies Brosseau's gifts as a storyteller. Some of his new songs, like "Today Is a Bright New Day," turn on simple, utterly clichéd repeated declarations, a la Bruce Springsteen's trite "Waitin' on a Sunny Day." These can seem almost meaningless until you burrow into Brosseau's verses; at that point, unexpected dimensions emerge, throwing different and often disquieting light on what starts out as an all-purpose pop catchphrase. Many of these new songs have trapdoors and switchbacks and meta moments, but they're never there for show: It's in the shadows where the sly Brosseau does his best work, transforming earthbound images into intimations of wonder, giving unremarkable everyday memories a mysterious, almost haunting poignancy.