Things have changed for Bowerbirds. They’ve released two stunning albums, toured the world and built an eco-friendly cabin in the woods of North Carolina. They adopted a dog.
Bandmates and lovers Philip Moore and Beth Tacular have seen their relationship dissolve and rekindle as they’ve tried to reconcile their personal lives with that of a touring band. They’ve established themselves in the ever-expanding family of indie folkies, and they stand with the best. They’ve produced true love ballads, awe-inspiring harmonies, and odes to Mother Earth. An accordion wheezes against the sound of delicate-but-determined fingers plucking the nylon strings of an acoustic guitar and a pitter-patter drum beat marching along. This is the sound of the Southeastern wilderness. It’s the sound of tender affection.
But as time passes, just as in nature, growth is inevitable. From the opening bars of the band’s third record The Clearing, this becomes apparent. That’s not to say that Bowerbirds were lacking in musical maturity, but it’s always exciting to witness when a band that was already good to begin with evolves, embracing change and building on the firm foundation they’ve established.
Sonically, the songs on The Clearing are noticeably bigger than the band’s previous work. They’ve always had a rich, full sound. But now, it’s larger, more grandiose. Many of the tracks build into towering, orchestral affairs with soaring strings, crashing guitars, pounding percussion and vocals that pine for the moon. Moore favors an electric guitar on several songs, giving an extra punch where it counts. But don’t worry; his signature acoustic makes plenty of appearances as well. On one of the album’s singles, “In the Yard,” fuzzy synthesizers take a seat front and center while Tacular softly sings in and around them.
When Moore’s voice joins hers, it’s like witnessing an intimate act, like a couple’s first kiss as man and wife. The notes intertwine and embrace becoming one for a few powerful moments before gently unraveling again, reclaiming their individuality. The passion in their music makes it difficult to believe these two companions ever doubted their love for one another. Perhaps it’s the resurgence of those feelings that provided songwriting material for the record, just as their relationship, fresh and full, provided inspiration for many of the songs on Upper Air. “On and on goes the long winter,” Moore sings on “This Year,” but despite the weather report, he retains his optimism as he name-checks the album’s title. “We’ve been there before, and I’m fairly sure we’ll find a clearing / In the forest of our hearts.”
For all its minimalism, “Overcome with Light,” is probably one of the most beautiful songs on the record. Moore assures Tacular, and himself, and the listener that all is well. Every relationship—romantic, musical, professional—suffers its share of hard times, but the singer reminds us they can be conquered. “Yes, we had some scrapes, but now it’s right,” he says before crooning the title of the track.
As the record comes to a satisfying end with the closing number “Now We Hurry On,” there’s an air of acceptance about the certainties and uncertainties of life, the good and the bad. (“What we miss, we miss, we miss. / And what we see is what we get.”) The lyrics speak of the little details, the details that make life truly a wonder to behold, the details we often miss. “We used to see the forest, now we see the trees,” Moore sings.
After the band has said their piece, the music continues on its own, quietly, with a sparse collection of notes drifting airily from a piano and maybe some electronic instruments. The effect is nothing short of breathtaking and can only be accurately described with a comparison to looking up at a field of stars as they twinkle on a clear night in the North Carolina sky.