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”).
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.