“Where have the sparrows gone?” ponders the Australian ex-pat on her fourth full-length solo album, A Dark Murmuration Of Words, as the narrator looks out of her window on a post-apocalyptic London devoid of birds, a contemplative rumination of “climate change, racism, sexism, and myths of economic progress through the lens of what it means to return ‘home’”.
Joined by musicians that include Misha Law and Emily Hall on violin, keyboard player and guitarist Pete Roe and the ubiquitous Lukas Drinkwater on bass, it’s an album that requires focused attention to tap into the themes and ideas behind the always melodic arrangements, its more contemporary sound largely down to the input of producer Greg Freeman.
She begins with a simple love song, ‘Return Me’ (“Come with me to another land/Our skin can thin together hand in hand”), a song about pulling back together a relationship that has started to drift (“I feel the path we’ve known begin to stray”) and then widens the perspective with the shimmering fingerpicked folksy ‘Geography’, co-penned with Graham Gouldman, from whence comes the album’s title, with its thoughts of home and identity as “Eucalypts after rain/Remind me who I’m again”, defined not by physical location but “where the heart lines meet”, the image of the migratory birds prompting the metaphorical reference to a murmuration in terms of the connections between words.
It’s a sense that also informs the banjo-mottled, country tinged, rhythmically upbeat ‘When The Stars Cannot Be Found’ with its existential musing on our insignificance (“a fleck on a marble/Here we are, together for a moment in time”) but the comfort in the permanence of the universe, that, like home, even when you can’t see them, the stars are still there.
Riding upright bass and puttering percussion, ‘The Woman Who Planted Trees’ is specifically rooted in the late Kenyan activist Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to win the Nobel Prize, who founded The Green Belt Movement with the aim of reforesting degraded land to provide food and empower the women in her community, but it also alludes to Barker’s own childhood as she and her family planted trees along the Blackwood River in Western Australia to help prevent erosion.
The earlier mentioned line about sparrows is the title of the subsequent number, woozy keyboard drone and clicking percussion anchoring its cautionary environmental themed lyrics (“Took too much from the ocean/Took too much from the earth/We took more than we needed to/More than we could return”). She then picks up on climate change with the softly fingerpicked lullaby ‘Strange Weather’, quiveringly sung in the voice of a mother apologiing to her unborn child for the world into which it will be born (“After both of us have gone/I hope you’ll look back and forgive/Us for what we’ve done”) but promising regardless “To give you every chance we can/To give the kind of love your father/Always wished he’d had” and reminding again that “We all need each other to survive”.
Striking a different musical note with its clanking percussion of clicks and claps, written some time back ‘Machine’ presciently anticipated the current debate about removing status that symbolise an unacceptable history as a monument to a “celebrated sinner with statues in the park” who made his fortune through slavery comes alive and declares “This world I made is harder the more your skin is dark”, the song a condemnation of the system, the machine, that facilitates such iniquities and “runs on its own”.
Showcasing the violins, ‘Ordinary’ returns to overcoming thoughts of being insignificant, of doing anything, counting stars or surfing, to feel alive “anything to keep from feeling ordinary”, the song unfolding to touch again on self-perceptions (“Wanted you to see me as someone more than ordinary”) and a realisation of the beauty in the mundane.
It makes its opening farewell with the slow drum beat and resonator guitar (and more references to stars) of the slow building holding on to love ‘Any More Goodbyes’ which, for some reason, had me thinking of Richard Thompson. The closing number the hymnal-like solo voice and piano ballad ‘Sonogram’, the term referring to an ultrasound image, the lyrics speaking of universal connections across time as we “Wear different costumes/Tell the same old stories”, and how “Vaulting from earth to sky/We’re cells and water/Like every living thing”, ending, finally, with the sound of an actual murmuration of starlings.
Sonogram quite literally translates as sound writing, here Barker has penned her masterpiece.
Artist’s website: www.emilybarker.com
‘The Woman Who Planted Trees’ – official video: