, March 9th, 2012 10:19
It is always very interesting (and sometimes heart-warming) when a band develops into something special in the public eye. There is something entertaining in anticipating the fate of those artists that start off raw and then eventually arrive at something extraordinary (some satisfying examples of the latter from last year include Wild Beasts and White Denim), as opposed to those that arrive at listeners' ears fully formed.
Bowerbirds' Phil Moore and Beth Tacular have taken six years since forming to reach their peak with The Clearing, a breathtaking album that capitalises on and emphasises the good things about their previous two releases, and does away with the tendency towards unfocussed warbling that was a (not entirely horrible) feature of their previous two albums.
Bowerbirds' 2008 debut Hymns for a Dark Horse was a rickety old thing, charming and a little shambolic. With its nylon-string guitars, unsophisticated piano and improvised percussion, and made by two delicate and sweet people very much in love with one another, Hymns defined the Bowerbirds message: a kind of pantheistic ardour informed by America's literary tradition of transcendentalism (Thoreau, Emerson et al) as well a personalised and non-preachy brand of Green politics. 2009's Upper Air was pretty much exactly the same, thus they have recognised the need to move on.
This is Bowerbirds' first album in a studio and away from the comforts of their eight-track at home. Happily, they have managed to stave off any polish or smoothness that might blunt the energy that comes from their intuitive musical talents. It is this that is responsible for their atmospheric and engrossing melodies. Complementing that, the more cultivated recording process allowed textures such as strings, Tacular's accordion and Moore's sonorous and charismatic vocals to assume a richness that has not been heard before.
Opener 'Tuck The Darkness In' is formidable, expansive, anthemic and accessible, but it is on the album's more introverted tracks that The Clearing's true brilliance is revealed. After a few listens, 'Stitch The Hem' becomes the superb example of pastoral songwriting it is, while 'Death Wish' in its minimalism has echoes of Leonard Cohen and Sufjan Stevens and is easily the album's most ambitious track, what with its sustained brass and clarinet fleshing out the signature Bowerbirds sound into unchartered areas. Also different is the attitude conveyed through the words – song titles such as 'This Year', 'Overcome With Light', 'Brave World' and 'Walk The Furrows' hint at the positive new chapter that Bowerbirds have clearly embarked upon.
So it's not just that they have secured better equipment and more time to fine-tune the songs - something has shifted in their outlook and approach. In the past they exhibited that gentle environmentalism (still with them in a milder way) that was open to accusations of lightweight counter-culture idealism. Now, there is a depth and profundity to both Bowerbirds' lyrics and arrangements that is suggestive, ambiguous and mysterious. One feels that while they were merely observers of civilisation's woes on previous records, they are now true and involved participants in some Great Big Questions – Tacular apparently nearly died of a 'mystery illness' prior to this record, an episode that has clearly elevated their music above any generic indie-folk idiom. These are Bowerbirds' songs of experience.