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Birdy’s ‘Beautiful Lies': A Scenic Eastbound Flight (Album Review)

Atlantic
Atlantic

In 1999, author Stephen Chbosky galvanized a generation of diffident teenagers when he wrote — through the eyes of a particularly introverted 15-year-old — “You see things. You keep quiet about them. And you understand.” His The Perks of Being a Wallflower protagonist Charlie often struggled to sustain the weight of misplaced secrets and unaddressed turmoil, but saw colors more clearly for his plight.

On Beautiful Lies, Birdy‘s third full-length studio album, the 19-year-old similarly observes what’s around her with keenness and insight many of her pop peers could only understand with decoder tools.

Featuring signature silky piano ballads, yet-unheard experiments with uptempo narratives and vocals that scale octaves like Spider-Man ascends downtown tenement buildings, the LP is a completely realized effort that quietly proves how adept she’s become. It’s a feat that’s all the more impressive considering the BRIT Awards-nominee — who wrote or co-wrote each of the work’s tracks — first broke into music with a collection of covers.

Birdy, who told PopCrush she was inspired to record the collection after reading Memoirs of a Geisha, finds unshakable footing in the East, and subtly nods to Japan without relying on tropes of traditional lutes or allusion to Buddhist drum ensembles. The work is, at once, delicate and powerful; vivid and restrained and unfolds like a sister story to Alice in Wonderland. But Birdy is not as naive, and knows better than to look before tumbling down the rabbit hole.

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As soon as “Shadows,” the LP’s mesmerizing second track, Birdy demonstrates just how far she’s learned to stretch her voice since recording 2013’s Fire Within. The song, which vacillates between peaceful and morose tones like a soured lullaby, serves as a runway for boundless range — one minute, she offers operatic tones worthy of Aida; the next, she descends to an eerie, full-voiced cruising altitude. “Shadows” runs the risk of sounding like a first-time soloist stealing the show at a youth choir recital; instead, though, the track’s innocence makes it stunningly other-worldly.

“Lost It All,” which offers similar purity, delivers hints of Regina Spektor’s “Samson” and Norah Jones’ introductory Come Away With Me with its starkness, and smartly stays tethered to simple piano framework. “A bitter heart, you let me down / But you’ll never lose what you never found,” Birdy grieves as a heritage brush reduces spots of drama to a familiar scratching hum. “Beautiful Lies” and “Growing Pains,” the album’s creamy-voiced introduction, function as perfect sister tracks, and show growth without completely upending the artist from her comfortable piano perch.

Still, that’s not to say Birdy’s decided against occasionally standing up, stepping away from her preferred instrument and casting footprints that extend further than the reaches of her trusty sustaining pedals. “Keeping Your Head Up” and “Wild Horses,” the first two Beautiful Lies singles, each tailor classical inclinations to more contemporary styles — the former spells out Florence and The Machine‘s frantic aggression across ping-ponging vocals and ghostly layering techniques while the latter offers powerful progressions and isolated booms befitting of a Jessie J power ballad. “There’s an angel, and he’s shaped like you and I thought I knew him / There’s a window, and it’s dark inside where the light was in it,” she beholds in estimation that’s still inimitably hers and miles more penetrating than any line from Sweet Talker. 

And, having already made the journey from right to center, Birdy remains in motion, and books a brief layover completely leftward for the sake of sightseeing. The melancholy “Silhouette,” a world-weary and self-directed affirmation to keep her head above water, slackly drums up verses you might otherwise hear from Lana Del Rey. Paired with the unusual production of “Hear You Calling,” which finds Beautiful Lies experimenting with Vocoder effects, the album’s occasional sullenness offers dark mystery that might have listeners sure they’ve taken a mistaken detour over the barest stretch of the Bermuda Triangle.

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And when it seems as though Birdy might have gone completely rogue, “Unbroken” restores clemency to the journey, casting light on keys that could only ever respond to her fingerprints’ touch. “Many moons will light a way / As sure as night will follow day / And everything you once loved remains,” she sings, hushed, in a tone that offers the comfort of finally returning home. What has gone up slowly sinks back down to Earth, and while “Unbroken” could have found a spot between “Skinny Love” and “People Help the People” on Birdy’s eponymous 2011 debut, it’s also too resolved: A former operator of imitation model jets, she’s now at the helm of working 747s.

There was never any doubt that Birdy had the voice to carry a career — what’s changed over the past five years is that she’s now got a handful of inflections from which to choose. Airy, heavy or laser-precise, each tongue has been constructed for storytelling, making Beautiful Lies the perfect excuse for an impulse getaway to someplace you haven’t been.

Birdy Rating

Birdy Explains the Concept Behind Beautiful Lies:

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