Well, this was unexpected. For fans of the relentlessly productive duo, the Body, as well as the intense Canadian three-piece BIG|BRAVE, Leaving None But Small Birds will come as something of a surprise. Instead of the Body’s experimental doom or BIG| BRAVE’s atmospheric sludge, we get an alt-country/folk album, seven tracks of relaxed tempos, ornate acoustic instrumentation, and widescreen Americana vistas.
But just how unexpected is this shift? American folk music is the voice of the downtrodden and oppressed, singing bleak tales of injustice, lost loves, and run-ins with the law. Just because, through our contemporary eyes, this style of music uses gentle and ornate instrumentation doesn’t mean that it has anything less to say about the dark side than the Body and BIG| BRAVE’s usual fare.
Like the opening to Blue Velvet, where David Lynch’s camera zooms in on the suburban lawn to discover bugs devouring one another amidst the dirt, Leaving None But Small Birds’ acoustic folk masks a troubled, doom-leaden, and elemental tone. It’s initially deceptive, possessing textures so different from its creator’s usual body of work that it seems as though a substantial tonal shift has occurred. Yet, by the end of its 38 minutes, there’s little doubt left as to how effortlessly well its creators’ visions mesh with this style.
The most immediate takeaway from Leaving None But Small Birds is its vivid narrative lyricism, which places the tracks in evocative times and locations. Highlights include “Hard Times”, which imagines the tribulations of working under cruel bosses in a saw mill, utilising a swelling drone in its second half that mirrors the growing frustrations of the exploited workers. There’s also “Blackest Crow”, an invigorating paean to a distant lover, which features a beautiful Appalachian violin and muscular, trudging tempo that almost replicates a lengthy, determined journey to be reunited with a lover.
Neither the Body nor BIG|BRAVE have ever been this literal and direct before, and it gives Leaving None But Small Birds a different emotional palette that the abstract iciness of both band’s previous work rarely touches upon. Their more intense, anguished sides do come through, notably on the towering “Polly Gosford”. This penultimate track pushes the closest towards anything its creators have done before. Its intense, droning guitars and spacious drums generate rapturous tension, bolstering lyrics that tell an engrossing tale of ghostly revenge.
A thrilling leap forward for its creators, Leaving None But Small Birds is a bold, confident, and riveting slice of dark, elemental folk music. It transposes its creator’s artistic vision into something wholly new, which, though initially disarming, quickly reveals itself to be an inspired and intuitive choice. The dark storytelling and layered instrumentation create a captivating journey across a landscape, both literal and psychological, rich, beautiful, and deeply tormented.