Birdsong, Felicity Urquhart and Josh Cunningham’s follow up album to 2020’s The Song Club is a must listen of rare beauty and insight filled with sophisticated musicianship and sublime songwriting. With influences as diverse as Willie Nelson, Nick Cave, Buck Owens, Roy Orbison and The Beatles, this is a heavyweight album sure to make an impact.
The freedom song of a bird in full throated ease is glorious. It captivates and beguiles as it falls on the ear, calling you to rejoice in the liberty that is its theme.
Birdsong, the new album from Felicity Urquhart & Josh Cunningham beckons with the same captivating call. Ten songs from beyond the cage evoke a sense of taking flight while simultaneously painting a picture of the dark restraint left behind. The soaring harmonies and melodic’ beauty of the opening title track, like the song of a bird, sets the tone from the outset. From its first lyric, “I’ve always been a sucker for a birdsong” the listener is drawn on a journey along the road forward to regained strength.
That theme is touched upon once more in ‘Fly By Night’, it’s urgent blues groove punctuating the tale of a woman fleeing a dangerous home and navigating a perilous “forty four miles to liberty” through the snowy night. ‘Unsteady’ (the first single from the album) chronicles the aftermath of a destabilising relationship where even though life is now brighter, lighter and sweeter, the scars still remain, and ‘Never Too Late’ celebrates the exhilaration in breaking free from the oppressive puppet strings of an abuser by calling them out and telling it like it is.
It’s a rare skill to infuse such weighty themes with lightness, hope and uplifting beauty, but Urquhart and Cunningham accomplish the unlikely with ease through sublime songwriting and captivating musicianship.
Josh Schuberth on drums and percussion, and Matt Fell on bass and mellotron lay a solid and soulful foundation for the pair to adorn with their exquisite vocal delivery and masterful playing.
Venturing beyond the minimal, intimate acoustic stylings of their debut album (The Song Club), Birdsong adds more meat on the bone. Electric guitars can be heard throughout, along with an eclectic array of obscure, small stringed instruments that are perfectly placed in Matt Fell’s mixes to communicate theme and story. Every word and note plays an essential role in the larger narrative to make this album a cohesive whole.
The theme of strength and resilience, woven throughout, is no more stunningly on display than on the standout track ‘Folded’. Urquhart’s deeply personal account of losing a husband and a father to her daughters is an evocative reminder that in the fight to hold on to hope, everything matters. The song begins with her haunting solitary eight string ukulele melody before swelling to a powerfully emotive climax.
Strength is touched on from a different angle on the catchy second single ‘Size Up’. In Cunningham’s experience, growing up in a poor family meant that “you wear a lot of hand me down clothes that take time to grow into”, but ‘sizing up’ was also “an attitude of standing tall and overcoming adversity and lack through resilience.” Cunningham’s guitar dances irresistibly through the track and the pure feel good flavour that it exudes is similarly echoed in the Buck Owens inspired ‘Guessing Game’. A punchy two-minute tour de force that shines a light on the mysterious and improbable beauty of finding your perfect mate. It’s also a declaration that whatever has been lost to the past can be more than redeemed in the living that’s left in store.
‘At Least Once A Year’, a torch ballad in the finest of country traditions, is infused with classic Willie Nelson flavour courtesy of Cunningham’s nylon string guitar and the raw emotion the couple pour into this homage to lost love and longing.
The closing track, ‘We’ll Never Get Out Of Love Alive’, is an eerie odyssey spanning the cradle to the grave quest for love. It’s ominous resonance drifts like an unearthly vapour around the truth that humans are hardwired for love and there’s no escaping it.
There’s a cohesion and a unity to this Birdsong record that is both compelling and captivating. Sonic and lyrical themes connect from song to song, but perhaps the take home message of the album as a whole is most perfectly encapsulated in the closing line of the arresting ‘Softer Side’. “True humans are fighters and lovers that keep hardness from their softer side.” As the final word of a track laced with incisive cynicism and sharp lyrical insight, this line expresses the triumphant declaration that whilst the harder edges of reality will always seek to injure our softer sides, true victory comes in fighting for and preserving our capacity for sensitivity and love.
There’s a similar reminder to always make a dwelling place for beauty in the heart in the opening verse of the title track, ‘Birdsong’ – through the referencing an ancient Chinese proverb – “keep a green branch in your heart and a singing bird may come.” Urquhart says, “we’ve all had disappointments and tragedies to confront in life but in spite of that, there is still so much beauty to discover. Communicating our own experience of that makes this album meaningful to us and hopefully to those who spend time with it.”
In an age where the single is king and attention spans are short, Urquhart and Cunningham have taken a bold step in making an album in the true sense – a complete work that is best appreciated in its fullness. Produced by Felicity Urquhart, Josh Cunningham and Matt Fell, Birdsong is an album that is both a beckoning branch and a birdsong of rare beauty and quality.