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Anton Barbeau
Manbird Ronnie Angel Pope , November 20th, 2020 08:50

Riffing on Greta Gerwig's Lady Bird leads master of melody, Anton Barbeau into an accelerationist reverie, finds Ronnie Angel Pope

If you are at all familiar with the likes of XTC, The Soft Boys, The Loud Family, and Julian Cope, Anton Barbeau won’t seem like an out-of-stater. This kinship can be attributed to the fact that he has worked, recorded, and/or shared a stage with configurations of each throughout his career. The Sacramento-born Berliner’s latest release is the ambitious double concept album, Manbird. Barbeau’s saccharine-and-trust psych-pop output has been going strong for 30+ albums, and, luckily for us, Manbird doubles as spotters’ guide: setting you straight out the starting blocks, ensuring that you’re privy to all the autobiographical information that you need in order to fill your peacoat pockets.

Thematically and otherwise, Manbird is candid in its crossover with Greta Gerwig’s coming-of-age film Lady Bird which was shot in Sacramento and clearly struck a chord. In a complimentary hat-tip of a golden light, Manbird mirrors the (more often than not) awkward and leggy process of leaving the nest. The stateside East-West dichotomy is rendered transatlantic as Barbeau explores a narrative split between Europe and California. An ongoing psychogeographical exploration of how our habitats hold power and influence over our selves unfolds, tracing the Situationists’ line of thought (as marked out by the Anarchists, Marxists, Dadaists, and Surrealists of earlier days). Concomitantly, the virtue of anonymity granted by larger cities and the personal politics of putting down roots also come under examination. Barbeau is generous in laying bare his workings-out as we are invited to join him in questioning how we might establish the meaning of ‘home’. I would go so far as to say that Manbird makes for timely pandemic listening as many of us find ourselves grounded and challenged with navigating new configurations of community.

What the listener gets is a hop-on-hop-off catchy and mushroomed whistle stop tour (complete with whistle). ‘Even the Swans are Dirty’ has been referred to as “an anthem for Neukolln” by musician/aestheticist/raconteur/provocateur Momus. The track is a tangible history of the ever-changing Berlin neighbourhood, told with industrial synth-laden vigour. And on the flip side of the same coin, ‘My Other Life’ also draws on psychogeographic tropes, proclaiming “my other life is made of solid stuff, I got love, i got love, I got concrete, flesh, and contracts, I got chai,” but it is twelve-string heavy and sounds like somewhere in a dream Lennon had asked Barbeau to join him in finding a home for “the sound of thousands of monks chanting”. ‘Don’t Knock The Mockingbird’ showcases some classic Barbeau quips and meta-criticism and ‘Flying on The Ground is Alright’ is a multilayered holy mess of Catholicism, yogic compassion, tenderness, and love, which catches the sentiment of the chaos that ensues after you’ve just tried to short-change the dodgems guy at the annual Wiltshire fair. The listener can sense an urgency to build a history, to map out a minute, to catch the moment, just as we are on the cusp, and to release it as something steadfast and reflective. At no point across the two albums of material does Manbird pander to reductionism or over-simplification. The discord exists to prove a point - that stripping Manbird of all its complexities would be to strip a story, a life, or a city of all the facets that make it function organically.

Barbeau refers to Manbird as something of a ‘Jungian travelogue’, inviting the listener inside the ribcage of ‘memories, dreams, and reflections’. This is executed well, as two albums worth of material moves deliberately, comfortably, and with considered intimacy. The line between what is real and what is dreamed is blurred in ephemerality, particularly considering the smattering of gorgeous female vocals throughout (namely ‘Dreamscape’). Pathetic fallacy or not, the first album could be regarded as being unsettled as a result of its decidedly conceptual nature, which results in its hyper-awareness of its promise to adhere to a theme. However, by the second album the listener can soften and claim their full reward. The sound as well as the ideas feel fully fleshed out. It offers pleasure and a hint of resolve. The egg turns Fabergé as Manbird’s aspirational tendencies transform into a fully-fledged identity that proffers this hook-happy and grassy-kneed album. If Manbird is an extension of the mind, and the hand is an extension of the Manbird, then the hand is resting on a mellotron.

In his A-Z Philosophy, Andy Warhol confesses his embarrassment about not liking flying as “he loves to be modern”, however, he compensates by “loving airports and airplanes so much” because airports offer his favourite kinds of ‘atmosphere, food service, bathrooms, peppermint life savers, loudspeaker address systems, conveyor belts, graphics, colors, and optimism’. Barbeau’s Manbird takes Warhol’s preliminary thinking under its wing as the material is largely concerned with airplanes, air-travel, airports, general aviation, avifauna (just birds, really) and being ‘ON AIR’. Barbeau captures the ecstasy of radio – the way that FM frequency is saturated with overlapping stations - that what was once free by virtue of having been empty space is no longer so. This heavy saturation is a state of stasis where Manbird is concerned. ‘Nest of Feathers’ displays a touch of the Brian Enos. ‘Beak’ nods towards Popol Vuh, Kosmischer Läufer, and Ashra, all cold war like Deutschland ‘83, and krautrock-referential à la Klaus Johann Grobe. It is all synth and psychedelia.

Barbeau’s Manbird takes the concept of Marxist accelerationism - of taking one thing and pushing it to its extreme until it transforms into another - and makes it his own. Whilst this is a large, political, and speculative avenue of thinking, Manbird takes the notion of a concept album revolving around a singular pinpointable theme, and pushes it beyond exhaustion, across four sides, to acquire another meaning. To access something better, beyond, a concept must be pushed beyond its limit (to the point of implosion) in order to generate meaningful change. Despite running the extra furlong with the avian theme, Manbird thrives to be universally pregnant with enough meaning for all of us. It taps into mutually understood verisimilitude by way of the shared complexities of space, memory, in-jokes, idiosyncrasies, weak-spots, and reference points. Throughout which a sense of continuity is driven home by Urbano’s (Lindsay Buckingham, Todd Rundgren, Smash Mouth) smart (and quite sexy) hands and Barbeau’s writhing, Bowie-esque ornamentation.

From Daphne du Maurier to The Lighthouse, variants of ‘bird’ have forever been imbued into our visual and verbal language under the guise of metaphors and omens. Still, Manbird, for all its jesting, falls far from the trappings cliché. By adopting a bird’s eye view, the construction of identity and the symbolism of cities is mapped out through cultural landmarks and personal monuments and moments. On a pragmatic level, these fixed points which are lodged throughout Barbeau’s lyrics serve to orientate the listener, as the quietly confessional narrative unfolds betwixt and between the unlikely pairing of Berlin and Sacramento. But they also work to cultivate charm and mystery. All in all, Barbeau’s mastery of melody, playful obscurity, and the earworm place him in the venn diagram of the present, between White Fence, The Oh Sees, Ariel Pink, and Tim Burgess.