Album Review: Rare Birds – Jonathan Wilson

Rare Birds (released last week on Bella Union), is Jonathan Wilson’s third album, and marks an interesting point in his musical career. What that point is, however, is perhaps harder to define. On the one hand, what made his previous work stand out so much is still present, but on the other it’s possible to hear a certain adjustment in, or expansion of, style.

The introduction to the album, Trafalgar Square, is definitely in the former camp, with a traditionally soft touch that is ethereal enough to evoke a sense of the cosmic order. In the opening build-up, Wilson’s confidence is easy to see: he knows his message, and how to deliver it. This applies to the rest of the album, and is achieved by long, unhurried songs (as in Living With Myself) and the layering of instruments into a rich texture. These methods, tried and tested in his previous work, are put to good use here as well. The extended instrumental introduction to Rare Birds gives a good idea of what this means.

Yet despite this similarity of style, differences soon become apparent, like the surprisingly electronic Hard To Get Over, with synthesised drums and an overall less sentimental, more cutting appeal. It really works, though, and there is a great chord progression hidden underneath the desolate repetition of the title lyric. In addition, Wilson takes something of a backseat in Rare Birds, at least with regards to leading on the guitar. Hard To Get Over is again a good example, opening with warm and rich soundscapes, shifting smoothly at the foundation as electronic sounds merge with the acoustic piano.

The familiar richness of texture mentioned above does permeate, and the only notable exceptions are Mulholland Queen (in which the sound remains stripped back and subdued to the last) and Sunset Blvd. Even in the latter, however, the instrumentation builds up as the track progresses, using dissonant harmonies and distorted instrumental melodies to create an uneasy, disturbed mood.

Jonathan Wilson’s influences are not hard to guess, but in Rare Birds there are some more explicit nods than have previously been heard. For instance, the track Miriam Montague sounds as if it could almost be a tribute to the Beatles. The address of a character, the dominating piano, cyclical vocal melodies and the strings’ repeated staccato phrases seem to touch upon Eleanor Rigby, Hard Day’s Night and Tomorrow Never Knows. In Over The Midnight, too, there is a more poppy spin, employing washes of synth to generate an atmosphere reminiscent of U2 and The Verve.

There is also a recurrent echo of Pink Floyd on Rare Birds, predominantly in Trafalgar Square (in the almost conversational singing style, panning synths and distorted guitars) and There’s A Light. In this track, the final section pares down the instrumentation to a liquid foundation of vocalisation, synth and bass, with the archetypal Pink Floyd guitar twiddles flowering over the top.

It’s also good to hear Wilson flexing his musical muscles and dabbling in new waters. For example, his politics have been demonstrated here and there in the past, but always in a somewhat abstract way. In 49 Hairflips, there is clear negative comment, specifically concerning the replacement of lived experience by social media: “the rest of them were posting their lives/These kids will never rock again/Sign of the times”. The lyrics, as well as the lamenting tone of the music, show he is mourning the loss of belief in anything at all.

In all, Rare Birds is a very well thought-out album, and the fact that he can pull off a synthesiser-infused country piece (Hi Ho The Righteous) after an electronic love lament is a testament to his magnificent ability to turn his hand. It may take one or two listens to get into, but as is always the case with Wilson’s work, patience is rewarded.

Watch the video for Over The Midnight here:

Jonathan Wilson will be playing in the UK between the 14th and 20th of March. For dates and tickets, visit his website here.

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