Bowerbirds’ debut album, Hymns for a Dark Horse, was nearly one hundred percent focused on the thesis that the earth is a sacred place with merit beyond us, and that humans are just visitors here. Its contrapuntal harmonies documented a moment in the life of the songwriter and the life of the band – Beth Tacular and Phil Moore living in an airstream in rural North Carolina, building a cabin of reclaimed boards by hand in the woods – but did so without, as far as we could tell, delving into their lives at all. While these weren’t protest songs, per se, they had the wry anger of a “Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” The songs were interconnected, both musically and thematically, a musical whitepaper of the very best, most listenable kind.
So it was a big surprise when we heard the songs collected on Upper Air. Bowerbirds were revealing more, writing from a personal voice, exploring love and human emotions in ways that have never been fully fleshed-out in their songwriting before. They have not abandoned their worldview from Hymns, but the lyrics are no longer just observational. These are songs written from a personal place, examining the contradictions inherent to a conscious life, and this emotional depth makes for an undeniably powerful collection of songs.
Upper Air is the product of months spent away from nature and away from home, touring endlessly with the likes of Bon Iver, Phosphorescent and John Vanderslice and on their own, on both sides of the Atlantic. The fodder for songwriting has changed, and so have the songs. Upper Air moves away from the singular sound and sentiment; each and every song on Upper Air is a journal entry that stands on its own, each a unique, beautiful piece. The arrangements are subtle: acoustic guitars, organ, piano, autoharp, violin, percussion, upright bass and more are used throughout the recording. Usually though, it is just a few of these instruments delicately supporting Moore’s voice, the anchor of every song. Everyone struggles when they try to describe this music, including us, but we’ll try: it has the spirit of Richard and Linda Thompson, the currency of Devendra Banhart, the addictively sweet melodicism of Iron & Wine, but it churns with an underlying energy closer to a Beirut or something farther out, more raw, more wild.
The most notable part is this: The songs don’t hide behind the instrumentation, the deontological conviction, or, frankly, anything; and that is what makes Upper Air undeniable, simple, and breathtaking.