Taking Flight

One of my many hobbies is looking around for new music to add to my ever-expanding collection.  Since I will listen to almost any genre of music, this can often be a huge task.  While I like every artist I add to my library, only a select few of them will touch a nerve to the point where I find myself listening to their songs more frequently than most.  Erin McKeown, however, has proven to be one of these artists.  I first heard one of her songs on one of my favorite TV shows, The Good Fight, and have been digging into her discography ever since.  The first album I listened to was actually her fourth, We Will Become Like Birds. The title is a nod to the fact that she initially wanted to be an ornithologist when she grew up.  While it came out back in 2005, I figured I’d do a review of it as a way of highlighting it and encouraging others to go check it out.

We Will Become Like Birds, like much of McKeown’s music, is difficult to characterize with genre labels.  The one I made up to describe this album is “electro-folk.”  While she uses an electric guitar on most of the songs, I wouldn’t describe very many of them as rock-ish.  It’s almost as if someone took all the acoustic guitar parts on a classic singer/songwriter album by someone like Joni Mitchell or Melissa Etheridge and replaced them with electric guitars.  Like much of those artists’ work, Birds is very personal and affecting, but in addition to that, it contains elements from many different musical traditions.

This leads me to another interesting point about McKeown’s career arc leading to this album.  Her first “major” album (actually her second), Distillation, was also a deeply personal album.  McKeown described in an interview how she went in a different direction with her second album, Grand, because it freaked her out to have to answer interview questions about the personal subjects covered in Distillation.  But she discovered that this put too much emotional distance between herself and the subject of her songs, so she returned to her prior approach with Birds, “in an attempt to write myself out of the worst heartache I’d experienced up to that point.”

To that end, the album is bookended by two brilliant songs, “Aspera,” and “You Were Right About Everything,” that could be thought of as the beginning of the heartbreak and the moment at which someone makes their peace with it.  Different songs describe different steps in that process, from wanting to escape one’s problems (“Life on the Moon,” “White City”) to fighting through that which will derail your healing process (“Bells & Bombs”) to beginning to understand that you will be better for the struggle (“We Are More”).

One of my favorite pictures of Erin McKeown

I’ve said several times on this blog that the mark of a great songwriter is the ability to get the spirit and sound of the music to match up really well with the message the lyrics convey.  McKeown shows that ability repeatedly on this album, and it makes you feel the songs as much as you hear them.  “Air,” whose lyrics talk about soaring above one’s problems to a safer place, has a sound that is sort of, well, airy.  It’s got a sort of wispy quality to it, like wind blowing high above the ground.  “The Golden Dream,” which features contributions from Argentinian actress/singer Juana Molina, takes on a dreamlike quality toward the end of the song.

But I would be remiss without delving further into the album’s two crown jewels.  “Aspera” features McKeown laying bare all the trouble she’s feeling, with the music conveying the feeling of tentatively stepping forward after something terrible has happened.  I also learned a new Latin phrase from the song: “Per aspera ad astra,” which means “Through hardship to the stars.”  “You Were Right About Everything” is the song that started my McKeown addiction.  This song is beautiful in just about every way, as McKeown is finally able to make peace with what happened, acknowledging both the good and bad of the situation.   The lyrics are reflective, the music is stirring… seriously, if you only listen to one new song this year, make it this one.  Interestingly, this is also the only song on the album with a prominent bass line.

Overall, We Will Become Like Birds is a very well-constructed album, and may have cracked the list of my all-time favorites.  You can tell in her first two major albums that Erin was still trying to find her sea legs.  But in this one, her craft is fully developed.  So I think it goes without saying that this one merits a buy it.  The rest of her catalog is worth exploring as well, as each album has its own unique characteristics.  Grand is her most heavily jazz/swing-like album.  Manifestra, her 2013 release, is a call to political and social activism, and her 2016/2017 EP duo According to Us and Mirrors Break Back are probably her most progressive/experimental releases.  Here are my track picks:

“You Were Right About Everything”

“Aspera”

“Bells & Bombs”

 

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