Bowerbirds - The Clearing

Despite this artful approach, there’s a smoothness to the record.

Label: Dead Oceans

Rating: 6

Bowerbirds have had an unusual trajectory for a band who formed only five years ago. It’s becoming so common to see groups emerge, laden with hype and, soon after, label expectations, that to discover a band moving quietly onto their third album of tuneful indie-folk after nothing but muted, if seemingly unanimously positive, critical acclaim seems downright odd. Then again, ‘The Clearing’ came out of anything but muted circumstances, so perhaps they find their fill of excitement elsewhere. Breakups and reunions within the band, life-threatening illnesses, a run-over dog’s adoption – this is the stuff that informed this album and, when compared with the band’s previous output, it seems this is true in more than spirit.

‘The Clearing’ is an album that strives for a sense of life at all times, a far-reaching, uncontainable mess of melodic noise that draws from genres like, well, someone reflecting on a ludicrous run of life experiences perhaps. Bowerbirds know where their origins (and, perhaps more crucially, their fanbase) lie – the album was recorded in a cabin they built themselves, assisted by Justin Vernon and sticks to a recognisable set of tropes in Philip Moore’s rich vocals and upbeat, easy on the ear compositions – but their outlook has widened considerably.

‘Hush’ begins with an eerie choral backing that appears to hold the rest of the song up, but before long there are chuckling marimbas, followed by an overtly African guitar style, filling the previous emptiness with a truly unexpected warmth of sound. Similarly, the otherwise functional folky anthemics of ‘In The Yard’ are appended by an unusually distorted electric guitar sawing away in the background. In fact, look close enough and every track has been treated with a sparkling coat of instrumental interesting-ness somewhere along the way: ‘Brave World’s blinking backing synths, the tango-accented piano ‘n’ percussion of ‘Stitch the Hem’ - there’s a routine surpassing of expectations throughout.

This isn’t merely attention to detail, but the addition of detail, and it extends to the album’s production too. Opener and standout track ‘Tuck The Darkness In’ plays with levels to magnificent effect. As the more prosaic aspects of piano, drum, guitar and vocals sound clean and straightforward, ghostly, echoing strings seem to try to break through but never quite do, flavouring the track with a sadness that the momentum it builds up wouldn’t lead you to expect. It’s an effect that doesn’t just create a crescendo and add to the overall noise, but goes beyond, suggesting something literally deeper to their sound.

Yet despite this artful approach, there’s a smoothness to the record – Bowerbirds seem unafraid of appearing well-recorded or, keep it quiet, even poppy, because they know that their subjects and considered nature of their recordings will remain singular. Unfortunately it’s that smoothness that also keeps The Clearing from reaching its true potential. ‘Tuck The Darkness In’ is by far and away the most spectacular moment, a summation of what the album should be and, whilst the following tracks occasionally come close, their general intent at being well-polished, genre-spanning recordings takes away from the closeness of previous albums and Moore’s poetic, personal lyricism. What’s left is a record that showcases the band’s new-found lease of life, but dispenses with the vitality of previous recordings.

Perhaps a gentle, unaffected build-up as a band has its own disadvantages. Where others might be desperately trying to show their worth, Bowerbirds seem content to showcase new talents without retaining older ones. ‘The Clearing’ starts brilliantly and ever-so-gently fades, until closer ‘Now We Hurry On’s extended twinkling, electronic outro seems disappointingly fitting; an ultimately empty gesture towards new sounds. Perhaps it’s an issue of sequencing, or perhaps Bowerbirds simply needed to change their music just as they themselves had changed, but their third album feels singular, apart from its predecessors in spirit, for better and worse.