The first thing people have said when I’ve stuck this album on is always the same: “is this a Joanna Newsom album I haven’t heard before?”. It soon becomes apparent that it really, really isn’t.
For a start, the lyrics. Woodpecker Wooliams (or Gemma Williams, as she (probably) signs her cheques) may have anthropomorphic tendencies in her writing – every song on the album is named after a bird, with characters alternating between human and avian attributes – but this is no “Monkey & Bear” malarkey. Opening track “Red Kite” certainly sounds sweet, with its softly plucked harp and background birdsong, but the lyrics tell a much less pleasant story.
It begins with the protagonist browsing Facebook and suddenly seeing a photo of an ex in familar clothing: so far, so universal, right? Oh no, wait, it’s, “the very same thing I’ve been wearing since our last night…when you smashed my face in”. Ah. Shit. I honestly can’t remember the last time I heard a piece of music that contained such an unexpectedly jarring line. It goes on, and gets worse: “I’ve had a rash on my face where you spat there for three months now / It just won’t go”, Williams laments. As a horribly convincing slice of domestic trauma it cuts deeply into the listener, with only the aural anaesthetic of the harp and some breathy bass clarinets providing any relief. Enthrallingly uncomfortable.
The emotional impact is never allowed to dull, but the music just gets better. “Sparrow”, the single which we’ve been raving about here for months now, is remarkably different from the relatively delicate opening tracks, but then again its remarkably different from pretty much anything. It shudders with humming, pulsing keyboards over a rapid-fire drum machine, while Williams snarls “you’re so god damn saccharine / that you break my teeth” over the top. The only thing you can easily compare the composition to is some of Dan Deacon’s less head-achey pieces, but “Sparrow” has an emotional intensity that he could never mimic – the tension is strung so tightly it seems like it’s constantly on the verge of snapping. One of the most fascinating songs of the year.
“Magpie”, thank God, brings everything down a notch. Yet even here, on a simple guitar lullaby, a subtle background synth howls like a distant wind blowing from some foresaken, horrific void. You can never completely relax. “Crow” and “Dove” are the same – outwardly straightforward, but gurgling with digital distortion and odd samples underneath the surface. “Crow” is particularly beautiful – opening with a scratchy rendition of The Last Post, it has an atmosphere of heavy, almost-overwhelming sadness, an understated funeral dirge which is suddenly stamped on by gigantic footsteps of bass noise toward the end. You can almost smell the freshly turned up cemetery soil.
Though the album is only seven tracks long, the surprises continue right up until closing track “Hummingbird” suddenly steps into an unlikely groove towards the end, complete with comically discordant party horns, which is about as upbeat an ending as this album could cope with.
But what an album it is. In a month that witnessed one of the most predictable, uninspiring Mercury Music Prize lists in memory, “The Bird School Of Being Human” contains more invention, imagination and emotional thrust than almost all the nominees combined, and heralds the emergence of one of the most intriguing British artists in some time. I always thought woodpeckers looked like such unthreatening birds. This one could tear you apart.