In our endless and silly pursuit for what’s shiny and new—even in the more distinguished realm of critical songwriting—you can almost overlook ol’ John Moreland who now with his sixth record is well into the mid-career territory. But you ignore John Moreland at your own detriment. He remains an apex predator of the songwriting discipline, who’s landed so many haymakers to the emotional receptors of listeners in the past, it has elevated the whole songwriting game for an entire generation, and is one of the reasons there are so many promising understudies now coming up behind him.
Moreland’s sixth album Birds in the Ceiling is his second collaborative effort with producer Matt Pence. His first in 2020 called LP5 shocked a few listeners, but still found a generally favorable reception for Matt Pence’s approach of at times using tasteful electronic embellishments to enhance and liven up Moreland’s songs without getting in the way of them, while also utilizing more organic instrumentation such as guitar and keyboard when called for. (read LP5 review)
Birds in the Ceiling doesn’t just double down on that electronic approach, it sends it into hyperdrive to the point where it’s fair to characterize this as a full-blown EDM record imposed over an acoustic singer-songwriter. All the subtlety and tastefulness of the previous effort is supplanted by overt and at times aggressive pulsations from drum machines and synthesizers that are only fair to characterize within the singer-songwriter space as ostentatious, resulting in very mixed conclusions on the effort.
Of course, that is part of the point: to be provocative, or as some will characterize, innovative, even though the wide proliferation of electronic sounds in popular music have been around for well over 45 years. Unlike LP5, there aren’t any real or real-sounding drums, or any guitar aside from Moreland’s acoustic, or any organic-sounding keys. It’s all EDM, all the time. Though some of the wisdom (or lack thereof) of these decisions can be chalked up to personal taste, the ultimate question for any singer-songwriter album is if the production and instrumentation gets in the way of the songs themselves, or compliments them. Unfortunately in this case, it’s the former.
Instead of drawing from the wide array of musical sounds with no discrimination upon their origins to compliment John Moreland’s original expressions, the producer looks to assert their own creativity in 16th and 32nd notes interjected in often syncopated or other distracting rhythms that obstruct the mood and flow of Moreland’s efforts. Right as you start to get into the sentiment of a song, it’s like you happen upon a power up in a first person shooter game, and upgrade to the machine gun with rapid-fire beats rattling away.
Are the scene kids going to suck nitrous oxide out of balloons to this music, or get crunk to John Moreland in the club? Of course not. So what are we doing here? Though this is sold as a collaboration, it still feels very much like John Moreland writes songs on his guitar, and producer Matt Pence does his worst on top of them in ways that aren’t even really especially interesting from the EDM perspective. The one exception is one of the early tracks from the album, “Cheap Idols Dressed in Expensive Garbage,” that either inadvertently, ironically, or purposefully works as an indictment of the shallow culture the sonic direction this album takes often appeals to.
The overstepping of bounds is perhaps best illustrated in the album’s second song “Lion’s Den.” A few songs give you early promise that perhaps a more ambient and less intrusive approach will be taken to them, like “Generational Dust,” and the very well-written and poignant “Dim Little Light.” But inevitably, the Tommy Guns start sounding off at some point, or other curious electronic interruptions kick in, while more conventional instrumentation is foregone almost entirely.
Yes, this is a lot of commentary on the production of this album, but what about John Moreland’s songs? They are certainly superior as always, with little bits of smart and subtle social commentary interwoven with poetic observances of life and our often neurotic interface with it. The aforementioned “Dim Little Light” with its insight into impact and importance in life, the cutting “Claim Your Prize” with its forlorn disillusion, and the final title track all impact like the best John Moreland songs do.
Moreland has always been good for delivering high impact lines and phrases in otherwise ambiguously themed songs. This might be especially true on Birds in the Ceiling. He rarely just comes out and says what he wants to convey. You must decipher the ultimate meaning—a meaning which might be different for you than for someone with a different life experience or perspective. That is why attentive listening to understand John Moreland is so imperative. That is also why the production approach to this album so impairs that capability. It’s like the difference between trying to glean wisdom from a conversation compared to an argument. There’s just too much disruption keeping you from the value to be gleaned.
It’s like they got a green light from the previous record LP5 to mix EDM and folk, but decided that to stay on the cutting edge, they needed to take it to the extreme, and just got lost in the process, and lost sight of making a good record, and representing the songs well. This is one of those albums where they should release an alternative version that just includes John Moreland. Part of his appeal is the imperfection within his music and delivery. EDM is the antithesis of that, where even the decay filter is set to algorithmic certainty. Listening to previous John Moreland albums, you can also tell his voice has been cleaned up here, erasing the soul and beauty of imperfection from his performances.
It’s worth resisting the urge to completely pan this album because it’s not the fault of John Moreland’s songs how it eventually turned out. He’s always struggled with production and approach. This left him susceptible to this outcome. And no, the concerns for the electronic sounds are not just the biting criticism of a country critic foreign to such musical expressions. Again, Moreland’s last record employed them just fine. But this album was an overstep, and dramatically so, in a way that Moreland may even be happy with, but is very hard to justify as respectful to his songs.