Birds of Passage is the name under which New Zealander musician Alicia Merz records. She has been plugging away at the ambient singer-songwriter subgenre for at least a decade now, and The Last Garden is her latest offering from Denovali Records, a label that suits her quite well. The Last Garden is, for better or worse, a thick slice of pure mood. Apart from the woozy, atmospheric drone that provides a bed for her hushed voice, I’m hard-pressed to list any other components to the music. Even the dynamics are reluctant to rise above a quiet whisper. Electronic minimalist music comes in many forms, but this could be the most minimal electronic music I’ve encountered so far.
The fade-in that begins The Last Garden is slow and gradual, making it a perfect piece of foreshadowing for the album. Long sustaining notes and their overtones greet the listener like a sunrise, lasting a full three minutes before Merz sings her first lyric. “It’s Too Late Now” lasts close to nine minutes – not a concise summary, but a summary nevertheless. Within these nine minutes, Merz shows her entire hand. “It’s Too Late Now” demonstrates her preference for subdued dynamics, her subdued voice, and elastic arrangements that allow the music to take its sweet time in travel. With nine songs in 42 minutes, The Last Garden isn’t lopsided, but it demands nothing less than absolute patience. Even the album’s shortest song, “Find Me Another”, at one minute and 37 seconds, operates on the same scale as “It’s Too Late Now”.
The Last Garden’s press release sells the idea that Merz only offers details on her private life through her music. If that’s the case, then her vocal performance still keeps you in the dark. Her constant reliance on whispering and muttering each word flattens out many consonants, making her lyrics a secondary concern after all. Detecting mentions of “light”, “dark”, and “beguiling” almost become moot in the light of such homogeneity. Thus, Denovali describing the music as “a rare glimpse into her secret world” feels abstract at best.
While Merz successfully establishes a very specific mood on The Last Garden, the listener needs to understand that they are in it for the long haul. Each song glides on soft, beatless electronics. Merz gently shushes her way through every lyric. Each track is as quiet as the last. The only surge in dynamics comes at the end of the final track, “On Our Hands”, when a distorted guitar or an equally distorted synth pad rises in intensity and then breaks up on reentry. “We Fell for the Devil to Rise” experiences a similar swell in sound on the word “rise,” but it’s nowhere near as interesting as what closes out the album.
If Merz would have injected more surprise moments like these in the music, it would be more rewarding. As it is, The Last Garden doesn’t grow or develop the way it ought to. It’s music designed for musicians to take their listeners on deep dives into dangerous waters, but Merz sounds content to stay in the shallow end and play it safe.