[27 February 2009]
At the end of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel The Road, there’s a short passage of lyrical beauty, seemingly at odds with the grinding fight for survival that occupied the rest of the book. In that short, cryptic paragraph, there’s, if not hope, at least something approaching optimism and a kind of cosmic clarity. It’s hard not to think of the book’s single moment of light and lyricism when listening to Clem Snide’s Hungry Bird, which doesn’t lack for unsettling imagery—and moments of quiet contemplation—of its own.
We last encountered Clem Snide frontman Eef Barzelay on his second solo effort, 2008’s Lose Big, which trailed rumors of Clem Snide’s breakup in its wake. On that record, Barzelay’s interest in the end of the world showed itself in songs like “Apocalyptic Friend” and “Me No”, which teemed with tension and imagery of fish bones being used for combs. “Me No” returns as Hungry Bird‘s jumping-off point, starting the album with an End Times pall that doesn’t let up until the disc’s second half. Since Hungry Bird was recorded in 2006, it’s apparent that these dark themes had been occupying Barzelay’s mind for some time.
“Hum” proposes that “I know not everyone will die / But no one is promised they’ll live”. “Burn the Light” begins with the unsettling “We melted down the gold, the gold that we found buried in her teeth / For wigs her hair was sold to drunken soldiers stumbling down the street / Let us burn the light / And all that’s good and right / Inside our hearts” and doesn’t lighten up much from there. Amidst stabs of guitar and lyrics about jagged wounds and brackish water, “Endless Endings” gives rise to cries of “I swear that I am good”. “Pray” seems to initially wish good health on the nonbeliever, but quickly takes on a darker tone (“pray on him the golden light not shine / pray guard dogs lose the scent / the snakes find shelter in his tent / pray the puddles reach beyond his knees”) before breaking into a full-band lope.
It might not all be about apocalypse, but Hungry Bird is a surprisingly dense record, full of dark shadows, with Barzelay’s intricate wordplay winding its way into some dark subject matter. Songs build up in momentum, only to suddenly break into silent pauses, followed by quiet reiterations of themes. “Burn the Light” flashes quick blasts of guitar that sound like they’re coming in from another channel, brings in a rising wall of horns, and then pauses for a momentary void of silence before picking up again with some acoustic guitar and an ending stanza. “Hum” follows the same template, following a horn buildup with a moment of quiet, followed by gentle fingerpicking and pastoral imagery. And you could argue that the album takes the same tack at the end. “Pray” offers up the less-than-charitable “pray the darkness eats his life / Behind his eyelids painted white / Pray a hungry bird consumes his heart” before offering the seemingly out-of-place sentiment “when somebody loves you / It’s no good unless he loves you all the way”. From there, it’s on to the sincere “I’ll be there” thoughts of the album’s closer, “With All My Heart”.
It’s transitions like that which make you go back and listen to Hungry Bird as some kind of story cycle. Is the woman in “Hum” who performs for men sitting in the limbs of trees, for example, the same person who’s having her bones ground with sugar in “Burn the Light”? Is the spoken-word “Encounter at 3AM”, read by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Franze Wright, a turning point in the album? Barzelay and his elliptical, twilight-tinted lyrics don’t offer much help. All the listener has, really, is the sense of foreboding that washes over much of Hungry Bird before Clem Snide start letting in a little light. It’s a challenging album, with few of the catchy moments that have marked the band’s earlier work, but one that seems to offer a subtle new reward with each listen.