Since their simple, nature-inspired folk caught the attention of the indie public, Bowerbirds have been wrested from their backwoods North Carolina nest and sent to explore the world. They signed to Dead Oceans for their follow-up and have toured North America and Europe with the likes of the Mountain Goats, Bon Iver, John Vanderslice, and Phosphorescent. While the success and acclaim they garnered from their debut was well deserved, the recognition seemed like a contradiction in terms. Much of the charm of Hymns for a Dark Horse was derived from its feeling of intimacy: Phil Moore and Beth Tacular cooped up in a shack by themselves in rural North Carolina, singing songs inspired by their natural surroundings. That those songs ever reached a wider audience than the trees in their backyard came off as slightly astonishing, not because of a lack of quality, but because of their organic, personal intensity. Moore’s lyrics on that album were so rooted in nature that taking him out of the woods and putting him on the highway seemed to put a dangerous distance between him and his artistic inspiration.
Luckily, transplanting Moore from the Appalachians did nothing to decrease his facility with natural themes, it only shifted it in a slightly different direction. Upper Air‘s lyrics are as full of trees and mountainsides as the previous album’s. But where Dark Horse was focused on man’s impact on nature (“It takes a lot of nerve to destroy this wondrous earth”), here the content is more personal, while always alluding to the immensity of nature. Over and over again, Moore sings in the second person, addressing his subject in language cloaked in landscape. “I don’t need, from you, a waterfall of careless praise,” he sings in “Northern Lights,” and in “Ghost Life” he says, “At the margins of the land I get to know your skin, where the sand dunes slope into the wild ocean, where the great plain heaves into a jagged mountain.” It’s not difficult to imagine that it was the vast landscapes Moore was traveling through on tour that gave him the most apt metaphors for the personal subject matters in these songs.
This album is not a great leap forward musically for Bowerbirds, but all the charms of their first album are here, slightly embellished and augmented. The instrumentation has more range, although the songs still work mainly on the interplay between Moore’s acoustic strumming and Tacular’s accordion. On opener and standout track “House of Diamonds,” subtle piano parts are interwoven into the texture of the song, and a sweetly sad violin helps lift the song into a final crescendo. The jaunty “Beneath Your Tree” benefits from a fuller drum sound than can be found on the majority of the debut. There are a couple missteps on the album, such as the slow, plodding tempo of closer “This Day,” but for the most part the careful melodies that made the debut so engrossing are present and effectively delivered.
The lyrics on Upper Air are more personal than those on Hymns for a Dark Horse, despite their less intimately local feel. And musically, Bowerbirds has moved forward while avoiding the premature experimentalism that occurs all too often on sophomore efforts. The band members have kept their distinctively delicate sound, while taking simple and well-considered steps to keep it interesting.