In her stunningly brilliant piece, Nanette, comedian Hannah Gadsby talks about how jokes have two parts: tension and release. The performer creates the former in order to provide the latter and, essentially, come out looking like a champ. She laughs that it’s a somewhat abusive relationship, that of comedian and audience.
Songs can be similarly structured, with one aspect creating the tension that gets released through a counterpoint. It’s a line that Birdtalker continues to walk on the band’s debut album, One. With a sound that is multi-faceted — expansive and sophisticated yet intimate and accessible — they often use soaring, anthemic melodies to temper deeply thoughtful, sometimes painful lyrics. And it works, recalling, at times, Hozier, Drew Holcomb, and other like-minded artists.
Zack and Dani Green form the core of Birdtalker, joined by Andrew Hubright, Brian Seligman, and Jesse Baker. While Zack’s physical voice is the most prominent throughout One, he credits Dani with writing 90 percent of the lyrics, with the band taking collective ownership over the arrangements.
Right from the top, “Ankle Bone” is propelled gently along by a pulsing bass line, building in intensity until it’s time to crack open the sky and reach for greater heights. There’s a sense of both grounding and grandeur within its confines, with the Greens’ voices rising and falling at arms’ length, but still connected. Tension, tension everywhere.
Then comes “Nothing’s Right,” which seems to speak as someone looking at the world with dismay, but not quite despair. There’s a hopefulness within the melodic hook that, once again, creates just enough tension with the lyrical hook. But the real truth comes with a foray into the mystic on lines like, “Tell me again how you can talk to God, and how he tells you what to do, and how you’re sure it’s not your own damn voice disguised as something absolute.” To pose the idea of God being viewed as an external force coming through, rather than someone’s own inherent wisdom or, gasp, their own divinity… that’s a lot to pack into a four-minute “pop” song. And that’s Birdtalker.
On both “Free Like a Broken Heart” and “Heavy,” the band delves into the idea of how you have to go into pain in order to go through it, to be transformed by it. “Be Where You Are” takes on the decidedly difficult practice of being present in and patient with each moment of life. This is heady — or, rather, heart-y — stuff. But Birdtalker always keeps a safe distance from too-worn platitudes and consistently releases the self-imposed tension through open-aired melodies. There are most certainly bands who have abusive relationships with their audience. Birdtalker is not one of them.