Bobby Birdman – Born Free Forever

Bobby Birdman
Born Free Forever

Soon (as in the next 10 years), we will be celebrating the close of the first hundred years of non-objective and non-representational art, something that might be shocking to anyone who has walked through a modern art museum and left with the impression that only individuals with impenetrable pretensions or art history degrees understand exactly what the blank white canvases and arrangement of geometric shapes are supposed to stir within the viewer. Music, always abstract by its very nature, has been a lot longer in coming around to a purely non-objective form. The marriage of melody, lyric, and some variety of verse-chorus-verse structure has proven far more enduring than possibly could have been imagined, but if the traditional strictures were already wearing tenuously thin 35 years ago when experimentation became fashionable in rock, they can barely stand upright now. But the conventional method still cuts the straightest path to connecting with the great majority of listeners, as most of us who find the computer seizures of Autechre a bit off-putting and the frequency projects of Merzbow a little boring welcome presence of voice and some recognizably repeating melody. And as there is no excuse for simply blindly adhering to the traditions of tune and verse, there are those who are still proving that there is some as of yet unexplored territory on the traditional landscape. If Bobby Birdman isn’t yet trudging through such virgin wilderness, Born Free Forever offers numerous hints that he has his compass ready.
Much as with the decidedly no-frills genius of the Microphones’ Phil Elvrum, Birdman (known as Rob Kieswetter to his mother) knows how to twist the conventions into his own creations, piling on visceral imagery and fluidly organic production and unobtrusively ingratiating melodies to craft a set of songs that become memorable for the unique personality behind them. Those melodies ultimately become the definitive feature of the mix, as Birdman is the subtlest of crooners, layering his voice into dueling lead vocals and ghastly choirs to lend an even more otherworldly tint to the groaningly lo-fi production. Multi-tracking his voice into a unified siren call over ominously marching drums in “I Have But to Know What I Want” or stretching single guitar notes over two eerily harmonizing voices in “Demon Heart,” the temper of the album is intuitively cryptic and singularly foreboding. As such, his is the type of pop that is never so glisteningly clean that you feel dirty for enjoying it; here everything is ambiguous and shadowy, the always sighing melodies almost lost in the far off grumble of sad cellos and lonely piano strikes.
The resulting songs are amazingly complementary as well, winding slowly into each other, often with a rhythmic or melodic element carrying over, if only briefly, into the following track. To that extent, the boundaries between the songs seem amazingly elastic, with the textures seeming to fade in and out at times, as highlighted by the seamless segue from the shimmering buzz of “The Fear” back into the sun-bleached courage rally in “All Right,” showing just how meticulously the songs are chosen for their compatibility in leading from (or back to) one another. Building his songs out of fairly simple chord progressions, his mellifluous warble, and one sturdily repeated melodic phrase, Birdman can evoke John Lennon on the gorgeous piano ballad “Born Free” as easily as he does the aforementioned Microphones on the roughly strummed nature hymn “Fire.” Conversely, as downright earthward as the sounds intuitively seem, many of them come outlined in clicking processed beats and gurgling synths that act as an interesting counterweight for the distinctly human undertones that dominate the imagery and storytelling of the songwriting. All in all, it’s a heady, complex, yet deceptively simple mix that rewards close listening and reveals an incredibly well-developed character with repeated listens.
To be free from one’s influences yet still have their indelible stamp upon one’s music is obviously a difficult feat, something that is only reached after years of struggling to find a distinct sound. Bobby Birdman has done well to accelerate that process a bit, landing on something that owes a few evident debts of inspiration but ends up being remarkably unique in its flowing, cinematic construction. To be sure, it’s not really cutting edge, nothing that would earn a glowing footnote in the annals of sonic innovation. What it is, however, is a work of consistent and ever-present personality, with melodies, words, and arrangements that create a vague (but effective) aura that continues to resonate in the listener’s mind long after the disc has ceased to spin.