Album Review: Home Is Where – I Became Birds

[knifepunch; 2021]

Through art and the stories we’ve told for centuries, the image of a bird has been made synonymous with attributes of strength, freedom, wisdom, and overall enlightenment. But above all, it conveys perseverance. Although the winged motif has become overwrought over the years, Florida’s Home is Where have reclaimed and reinvigorated it for modern times, using it to signify multiplicity and the feeling of freedom found in discovering one’s identity. 

Home Is Where are an energizing emo and post-hardcore collective comprised of Josiah Gardella, Trace George, and Connor ‘Fat Slaps’ O’Brien, but the band’s kinetic heart lies, clearly, within the chest of their vocalist Brandon MacDonald. It’s easy to identify who MacDonald is by her voice alone, but listeners don’t know her until they’re neck-deep in this emotional listening experience that is the band’s brief but riveting debut offering I Became Birds.

Through a procession of vivid images and allusions that are vague but compelling nonetheless, I Became Birds positions MacDonald as a clairvoyant frontperson in whom many see themselves reflected. Though the record is tightly tethered to MacDonald’s realization of her gender identity, this record is not a closed circuit of her experiences and personal emotions. There’s a sense of universality to her words that allow others, just as marginalized, to hitch a ride atop MacDonald’s fledged wings, ready to soar through the emotional turbulent winds that tend to whirl wildly when one seeks out affirmation.

Beginning with the folk-forward “L. Ron Hubbard Was Way Cool”, MacDonald proclaims that she’s “more water than human.” Asserting her own plurality, as well as that in and of nature itself, MacDonald highlights how humans restrict themselves to binaries, boxes, and dividing lines. That may sound like too much meaning imposed upon a single line, but this begins to make sense further along in the record.

Following the short but memorable folksy crescendo of the opener, MacDonald pries these boxes and imprisoning confines wide open on “Long Distance Conjoined Twins” with an uncannily raw vocal performance that’ll have emo fans roaring in unison years down the road at shows. Calling out, “Hey Samanthaaaaa” on the harmonica-guided track, she sounds as if she’s gargling shrapnel; it’s a bit Jeff Mangum and even more Bob Dylan — coarse but charming. At first, it’s grating to hear every imperfect inflection in her voice, but MacDonald commands the mic so well on this standout cut – and at every other stop on the record, for that matter — that the aural imperfections become endearing, proving that there’s something oddly liberating when flaws are allowed to be just that.

Needless to say, MacDonald is a tour de force no matter which avenue Home Is Where take. Whether it’s by way of her harmonica virtuosity, devastating poetry, and of course, a mangled voice that grimaces through each word uttered, MacDonald is every emo fan’s dreamed-up, archetypal frontperson. But for her, this image is still a work in progress; she envisions her ideal self with hope – a hope that is felt on a more profound level via the record’s liner notes which read, “this album is dedicated to anyone & everyone who has struggled/is struggling with their gender identity.”

This hope, however, is not gleaned immediately in the band’s music. In fact, through disheveled wailing and mournful lyricism, agony precedes any and all silver linings. Still, one rallying truth remains clear through the drab curtains of abstracted images and metaphors — gender is a construct. “Oh! the treachery / of anatomy,” MacDonald roars on the masterful “Assisted Harakiri”. Bemoaning her own existence, initially, our narrator is wrought with gloom and general malaise. And, even though MacDonald wrote most of I Became Birds back in 2012, who would blame her for being fed up of living in a world that tries to pin her – and others who have had similar experiences and feelings – as something or someone other than what they desire. As she laments the societal norms that hinder expression and happiness, “Assisted Harakiri” takes listeners through the wringer of anger and frustration that often parallel self-discovery and fulfillment. 

With images of death (“Somebody is going to find / What you decide to leave behind”) and decay (“Celestial tadpoles scatter sawdust / For the disemboweled / Severed heads haloed / Mouths full of railroads”), lacerating listeners’ already-heavy hearts, “Assisted Harakiri” sees MacDonald gaze upon her old self — dead and mutilated — just before she metamorphoses into what is alluded to directly in the album’s title. This post-hardcore incinerator is clearly the record’s core, both emotionally and musically, especially as listeners bear witness to MacDonald’s guttural cry.

Now, it is as liberating to hear the band frenzy into a giant choir, harmonizing on “Look at the dogs / I wanna pet every puppy I see” in “Sewn Together From The Membrane of The Great Sea Cucumber”, or MacDonald spewing at the end of “The Scientific Classification of Stingrays”; “wash it / down with a rifle / or a uniform / of gasoline / leave nothing for the flies.” Still, there may not be a more cathartic moment on any other album released in 2021 than hearing MacDonald on “Assisted Harakiri” utter three words that soar triumphantly through the air during the track’s final moments – “I became birds,” and then one more time for reassurance.

The death-defying climb up this cathartic mountain promises to leave listeners scathed by the time they reach the end, but through many surreal lyrical turns and angular vocals, Home Is Where’s brilliant combination of pain and exultant power prevails. I Became Birds is a breakout moment for this band and their lead who pushes herself to the breaking point, giving it her all every time she relinquishes a pained image from her heart. Her crackled croon and stirring message will resonate with many, no matter who or what you identify as, because this band’s home is yours too.