In our endless, mindless pursuit of what’s bright and new – even in the most genteel field of critical writing – you can almost forget old John Moreland who, with his sixth record, is well into mid-career. But you ignore John Moreland to your own detriment. He remains a top predator in the discipline of songwriting, which has landed so much hay on listeners’ emotional receptors in the past, it has elevated the whole songwriting game for an entire generation, and that’s one of the reasons there are so many promising stunt doubles now coming up behind him.
Moreland’s sixth album Birds on the ceiling is his second collaboration with producer Matt Pence. His first in 2020 called LP5 shocked a few listeners, but still found generally favorable reception to Matt Pence’s approach of sometimes using tasteful electronic embellishments to enhance and enliven Moreland’s songs without getting in the way, while also using more organic such as guitar and keyboard when calling for. (Lily LP5 exam)
Birds on the ceiling doesn’t just dub that electronic approach, it sends it into hyperdrive to the point where it’s fair to characterize this as a full-fledged EDM record forced upon an acoustic singer-songwriter. All of the subtlety and good taste of the previous effort is superseded by overt and sometimes aggressive drum machine and synthesizer pulsations that it’s fair to characterize in singer-songwriter space as ostentatious, which gives very mixed conclusions about effort.
Of course, that’s part of the goal: to be provocative, or as some would characterize it, innovative, even though the wide proliferation of electronic sounds in popular music has been around for over 45 years. Contrary to LP5, there’s no real or real-sounding drums, or guitar aside from Moreland’s acoustic, or organic-sounding keys. It’s all EDM, all the time. While some of the wisdom (or lack thereof) of these decisions can be attributed to personal taste, the ultimate question for any singer-songwriter album is whether the production and instrumentation interfere with the songs themselves or complement them. Unfortunately in this case, it is the first.
Instead of drawing from the wide range of musical sounds indiscriminately of origin to complement the original expressions of John Moreland, the producer seeks to assert his own creativity in the 16th and 32nd notes interspersed in often syncopated rhythms or other rhythms distractions that obstruct mood and flow. of Moreland’s efforts. As soon as you start getting into the feeling of a song, it’s like hitting a power-up in a first-person shooter and going machine-gunned with rapid beats.
Are the kids in the scene going to suck nitrous oxide into balloons to this music, or get run over by John Moreland in the club? Of course not. So what are we doing here? Although it’s sold as a collaboration, it still feels like John Moreland is writing songs on his guitar, and producer Matt Pence is doing his best on it in a way that’s not even really interesting from the point of view of EDM view. The only exception is one of the album’s first tracks, “Cheap Idols Dressed in Expensive Garbage”, which inadvertently, ironically, or deliberately functions as an indictment of the superficial culture that this album’s sonic direction takes. often called upon.
Breaking boundaries is perhaps best exemplified in the album’s second song “Lion’s Den.” A few songs promise you early on that a more ambient and less intrusive approach may be adopted for them, such as “Generational Dust” and the very well-written and poignant “Dim Little Light”. But inevitably the Tommy Guns begin to sound at some point, or other curious electronic interruptions occur, while the more conventional instrumentation is almost entirely abandoned.
Yes, that’s a lot of commentary on the production of this album, but what about John Moreland’s songs? They’re certainly superior, as always, with little bits of smart, subtle social commentary intertwined with poetic observances of life and our often neurotic interface with it. The aforementioned “Dim Little Light” with its insight into impact and significance in life, the cut “Claim Your Prize” with its desperate disillusionment, and the ending title track all impact like John’s best songs. Moreland.
Moreland has always been good at delivering high-impact lines and phrases in otherwise ambiguous theme songs. This might be especially true on Birds on the ceiling. He rarely goes out and says what he wants to convey. You need to decipher the ultimate meaning – a meaning that might be different for you than for someone with a different life experience or perspective. This is why careful listening to understand John Moreland is so imperative. It’s also why the production approach of this album is so detrimental to that ability. It’s like the difference between trying to glean wisdom from a conversation versus an argument. There are simply too many disturbances preventing you from enjoying the value to be gleaned.
It’s like they got the green light from the previous recording LP5 to mix EDM and folk, but decided that in order to stay cutting edge, they had to go to extremes, and just got lost in the process, and lost sight of the possibility of making a good record and representing the songs. This is one of those albums where they should release an alternate version that only features John Moreland. Part of its appeal is the imperfection of its music and delivery. EDM is the antithesis of that, where even the decay filter is tuned to algorithmic certainty. Listening to John Moreland’s previous albums, you can also tell that his vocals have been cleaned up here, erasing the soul and beauty of imperfection from his performances.
It’s worth resisting the urge to do a full panning of this album, as it’s not the fault of John Moreland’s songs at the end. He always struggled with the production and the approach. This left him vulnerable to this outcome. And no, the concerns for electronic sounds are not just the harsh criticism of a country critic unfamiliar with such musical expressions. Again, Moreland’s latest record employed them very well. But this album was overstepping, and dramatically, in a way that Moreland may even be pleased with, but which is very hard to justify as respectful of his songs.