“Sebastopol”, the first song on Nick Jaina’s A Bird in the Opera House, starts out sounding a lot like the river-flowing sound of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, but it’s not as mystical or natural-world in tone. Instead the song is a specific tale of how a chance meeting changes someone’s life, of seeing the promise in someone else. “Your eyes tell so many tales / I only want to believe”. Sometimes I wonder if the song isn’t about a city as much as a person. Like Morrison or Paul Simon, who he more often recalls, Jaina is a singer/songwriter carefully crafting lyrics that tell stories which are not simple, or which tell them in ways that are not simple. Jaina is egging on critics’ temptation to fall back on words like “literary” or comparisons to fiction writers. Yet music isn’t literature, and thank goodness for that.
A Bird in the Opera House has great melodies and a sound that was carefully put together. Each song is layered with instruments, but doesn’t seem belabored. The band sounds tight, is playing efficiently and smartly together. This is Jaina’s more composed studio album after 2008’s also excellent A Narrow Way, which had a more casual set-up of everyone getting into a room and just playing. On A Bird in the Opera House, the instruments add to the overall feeling well, and the songs seem ordered with this impression in mind. After the calmness of the first few songs, “Sleep, Child” has a huge, lively sound. “Office Schoppe” has funeral horns at the end that resonate well with the song, an elegy for those murdered in the streets of a city.
The instruments and arrangements are always right in step with the songs. The pace of the album is continually switched up, until the last few songs where it feels like the whole affair is winding down. The overall sound and composition of the album, as an entity, seems to have been given careful attention. I’m not sure there’s another Hush Records album I wouldn’t say the same about, however, which is a testament to both the label’s consistency and their ear for musicians who have a clearly formed artistic vision.
The songs on A Bird in the Opera House paint pictures of city streets, bars, quiet rooms and people searching for something. Jaina, like popular music in general, often circles back to love as the major theme. In “Another Kay Song”, it’s obsessive love. “It doesn’t matter what you do / I’m blindly in love with you”, he sings, scaring us a little. “Theresa” starts out as the visions of an insomniac but ends with him devoting himself to the devotion of one person. The jaunty, particularly catchy “Semoline” depicts someone walking alone in the streets, fixated on one name. The stirring “I Don’t Believe You” first seems a commentary on perspective, the way one person can claim one truth and another the opposite. In the process his way with words delights: “You say the moon is just a spinning rock / I see a lamb that has lost its flock / ship in a storm tied to the dock / broken clock”. But of course, it’s really about love, a testimony. He sings “you say that love / you say that love / love is not enough” with so much exasperation he can barely complete the sentence. The notion that love wouldn’t be enough has left him almost speechless.
These songs are complicated like that, joyously so. The pure serenity of “Days in My Room” is beautiful, one of the album’s most remarkable moments. Yet what’s more remarkable is how that calm envelops a unique messing-around with the perspective of a song, with who we’re hearing from and what they may be seeing. The song circles around to what seems to be someone upset at the way the machinations of love have played him for a feel. A universal tale, but told in a surprising and even perplexing way. In the right hands it’s a great feeling, to be perplexed.