ALBUM: Beautiful Lies ARTIST: Birdy
Album release date: March 25 / 2016
A Remembered Myth
Dante Gabriel Rossetti was known for his paintings of lugubrious, beautiful maidens whose expressions evoke sympathy in the viewer – St. Catherine, on the way to her martrydom; La Pia de Tolomei, a character from Dante’s Purgatorio whose husband imprisoned her; Proserpine, Queen Guinevere, Desdemona: all women wronged in love, wide of heart and angelic in appearance, with painful stories told only through the mute mediums of paint and light.
Years after the artist’s death, an Australian woman named Florence Harrison picked up the thread of these ancient stories, and, influenced by the work of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and other Pre-Raphaelite artists, began writing and illustrating children’s books based off of them. Her jewel-toned, heavily-lined prints of princesses, goblins, forests and knights are recognized everywhere as the prototype of mythical illustration.
Her work – along with a confused flood of remembered stories by Hans Christen Anderson and the Brothers Grimm – came immediately to my mind when I picked up English-born singer Birdy’s (Jasmine van den Bogaerde) lastest album, Beautiful Lies. On the cover stands Birdy, robed in a richly embroidered silk kimono, her hair loose around her, with a piercing expression on her pale face. A moody, watery blue backdrop spans out behind and around her: she looks like Ophelia (or some such nymph of medieval lore) lost by the water, seeking what is irretrievable.
Dark Wings Take Flight
Up until this point, I was only familiar with Birdy’s papery cover of Bon Iver’s song Skinny Love, which caught the world’s attention back in 2009 and has remained hugely popular. I assumed that this album would be a continuation of her previous “Poor Little Match Girl meets Ingrid Michaelson” vibe, only to be pleasantly surprised to find that the tragic, arcane feeling imparted by the cover image imbues the music contained within. The songs on this album reveal an artistic approach and delivery that is mature and womanly, tinged with the sorrow brought on by the unstoppable current of time.
The opening track, Growing Pains, begins with a Japanese-inspired descending melody, soon supplemented by a heavy bass-line and expansive percussion. Birdy’s voice is strong, deep, and powerful. Strings move back and forth like a murmuration of starlings: the tone is spacious and grandiose. From here, the well-placed songs further emphasize the young singer’s chrysalis from pleasant ingénue to agile visionary and artist.
Though the lyrics do not fall into the category of sung poetry, nonetheless, Birdy’s vocal delivery – and the melancholy-misty production surrounding it – successfully conveys a wide spectrum of emotion and experience, even without the support of verbalized imagery. Much like an introverted person, who typically refrains from divulging the vast galaxy that is their interior life (simply because certain realities are bitterly incommunicable) and thereby gains a reputation for having a certain je ne sais quoi – Birdy gives us just enough of a taste of her mind to make it clear that she is drawing from a very deep pool indeed.
A Walk in the Woods
Varying from hushed, piano-driven ballads to glossily produced anthems, Beautiful Lies presents itself as the cogent work of a darkly romantic mind. Baroque-pop, dashes of 80’s drama and vocal runs favoring distinctly R&B sounds, Eastern shimmers, a Beatles-esque tune (the title track Beautiful Lies), and a indescribable haze (possibly plumes of smoke wafting out from a caterpillar’s hookah den) enfold the album in warm contours. Birdy’s voice is at its sweet-spot in the lower-range, and this is perhaps the most delightful surprise all: she broke onto the music scene at the age of fourteen wielding a limpid head-voice as her trademark sound. Now she is back at the ripe old age of nineteen, extending a soul that has aged early and unleashing a voice that possesses a cavernous, dusky beauty and depth.
One cannot help but sense beneath the brooding eyes a pure, child-like heart, still alive with a border-less imagination, still eager to lead the way into the tangled forest of the mind and emerge triumphant on the other side.
Easily one of my favorite albums of 2016, Beautiful Lies is not to be missed.