Erin McKeown’s recording career has had few constants, unpredictability and departure being two of them. Just when you think she’s vulnerable enough for pigeonholing (2000’s Distillation had many ready to peg her as another revivalist in a long line of old-timey enthusiasts), McKeown jumps genres and eludes generalities. 2003’s Grand was her most wildly eclectic effort to date, its songs pulling in all directions at once as if she wanted, above all else, to reject any half-hearted notion of definition.
We Will Become Like Birds represents yet another shift in style, but unlike Grand, cradles a coherent mood throughout the course of its 12 tracks. It’s McKeown’s pop-rock record, bursting with electric guitars, brawny arrangements, big hooks, and a newfound appreciation for the muscular drive of a band, courtesy her collaboration with bassist Sebastian Steinberg (Soul Coughing) and drummer Matt Chamberlain. McKeown’s distinctive voice—caught somewhere between the free fancy of Edie Brickell and the jazzed-up introversion of Rickie Lee Jones—is not so much chameleonic as it is assuredly adaptable, surfing incandescently over the near-breakbeat rhythms of “Air” and “To the Stars”, the jaunty handclap bounce “We Are More”, and the sprightly pop of the Chicago’s World Fair-praising “White City”. With the exception of a few songs (including the heavy ballads “Float” and “Delicate December”), We Will Become Like Birds sports a fresh, exciting feel. It’s not another anonymous singer-songwriter record; it’s a McKeown record.
The album is not just an excuse for stylistic experimentation; it injects McKeown’s dissections of past heartaches with freewheeling possibilities. “I’m in shambles / Blown to bits by our troubles / These brambles, our stumblings, our struggles,” McKeown sings atop the heavy, droning groove in the opening track “Aspera”. We Will Become Like Birds tries to make sense of these self-inflicted segmentations, these distances and divides imposed by relationships. There’s an excitement inherent in figuring out how the pieces fit back together—“Nothing so precious as what we don’t know,” McKeown sings in “Life on the Moon”—not to mention how it all shapes us in the end: “We are lit within / By all we’ve been and by all we came to be.” Her voice casts every sentiment and remembrance in an optimistic light, as if the words themselves are entirely arid and second nature to conjure.
In the end, McKeown makes the most sense out of all of this confusion and conflict (beautiful as it may be) by distancing herself from the hardest parts. “Nostalgia sweet, hindsight so dear / Objects now are smaller than they appeared,” she confesses in the closing track “You Were Right About Everything”, riding an assured drum track and a craggy electric guitar. The confidence exhumed over the course of We Will Become Like Birds results from McKeown’s inability to obsess over weathered tribulations as if they were inescapable burdens. If it is a breakup record, or a record examining the crime scene of a breakup, it works hard to avoid all the pitfalls and clichés that have come to define the sonic diary-on-wax. “What’s the harm in ruins?” she asks in “We Are More”. “Reminds us of who we were in darker times.” McKeown’s not suggesting that reality become an escapist fantasy, but rather that the present be made a little more weightless by comprehending the past.