As far as backstories go, most albums follow the same sort of formula: after finishing a tour or some time off, the songwriters begin working, maybe there are some rehearsals, and then the eventual recording, mastering, sequencing, packaging, and all that stuff that is pretty boring for anyone who is not closely involved with the process. But, when some juicy events shape an albums creation, whether it is Rumours or For Emma, Forever Ago, classics are born through the marriage of great tunes and the mythology behind them. And, if you paid any attention to the early press releases for Bowerbirds’ third album The Clearing, this release seemed primed to reach a status similar to these classics if only the music would match the stories that brought out their creation: singer and accordionist Beth Tacular’s brush with death followed by her dissolution and reconciliation of her relationship singer Philip Moore. A breakup album and a romance album? Sign us up!
Luckily, these stories only enhance what would be a strong outing from Bowerbirds. In fact, The Clearing is the strongest album of their career thus far. Recorded both in Bon Iver’s Wisconsin studio and their own North Carolina cabin (which they built), The Clearing finds both Tacular and Moore, along with third member Mark Paulson, marrying their front-porch songwriting style with precise and clean production, allowing a band that always seemed compact and precious to grow into something fully realized. Dare I say Bowerbirds are spreading their wings? No, I wouldn’t say that. That is just terrible.
Opener “Tuck The Darkness In,” is a contender for the best song that this band (or any band this year) has written, and it quickly shows the listener that the game has changed. We get haunted violins that sound like they fell off of the new Andrew Bird record, distorted guitars, and a busy, sweeping climax that releases all the tension that this groups had supposedly built up. The album has quite a challenge for the duration to match this high point, especially since “Tuck The Darkness In” is the least subtle song on the album and the entirety of The Clearing takes five, or even ten, listens to full appreciate. Whereas the Bowerbirds say that they spent more time working on The Clearing than they had on their other albums, likewise, the listener needs to spend an equally lengthy time to fully grasp the accomplishment that The Clearing is.
And the revelations come in the details: the distorted effect that Tacular’s accordion takes on “In The Yard,” the frantic handclaps that transform “Stitch The Hem” from a simple folk song into something magnificent in the vein of Sufjan Stevens, the psycho-sax at the crescendo of “Death Wish,” and the powerful percussion of “This Year,” which delves straightforward into the source material (“Just come down from a high fever…”) and matches some of the production quirks that made the last Bon Iver album such a joy to listen to. It’s not like Bowerbirds are working with a full orchestra or anything, but these little touches make The Clearing a sonic success without sacrificing the personability that characterizes the band.
The Clearing, like anyone who would tell you that everything is going to be all right, should arouse a bit of suspicion. But when Moore announces that this “is our sweet moment,” on “Sweet Moment,” he is completely believable both in the way that he sings and in the fact that we know where he is coming from. “Overcome With Light,” which retreats to the spare sound that is closest to the band’s earlier work, literally sounds cleansing, acting as both a testament to how far the band has come and an invitation to go on the next part of their journey with them. If anything, The Clearing is a marching cry for all of us to follow the band to the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. Sure, it’s cheesy when put like that, but The Clearing is an album that tells us that things are going to get better. Closer “Now We Hurry On” announces “Know you are not alone,” and the band literally rides off into the sunset, concluding that “we thought we’d have forever, but now we hurry on,” leaving nothing behind but what sounds like the twinkling stars of night. Whereas The Clearing is a document of success for the Bowerbirds, both in their personal lives and their musical lives, it is also a blanket of comfort to any listener that needs to know that things can, and will, get better.