Ponder the moment when music gives you goosebumps. It’s amazing when some magical combination of voice and instrument and sound and lyric causes involuntary muscle contractions of hair follicles on the arms, along with a radiating release of tension in the chest that is usually only accessible through meditation or medication. It’s therapeutic in the most physical sense. This moment occurs on “Sewn Together from the Membrane of the Great Sea Cucumber”, the third track on Home Is Where’s I Became Birds, a self-described fifth wave emo band from Palm Coast, Florida. It’s the moment when the so-called “puppy petter choir” comes in. “I want to pet every puppy I see,” the multi-gendered chorus of humans sings. It’s a moment of unabashed loveliness and warmth that masterfully softens up the listener for maximum impact when the band erupt into a minute-plus blistering Deafheaven-ly screamo assault before calmly receding into the melancholy chamber the song started from.
That melancholy is interwoven with themes of fluidity and connection. “More water than human, the glass shapes to me,” sings frontperson Brandon MacDonald on opening track “L. Ron Hubbard Was Way Cool” over simple acoustic chords and a mid-tempo groove that quickly gets thickened with an almost shoegaze-y blanket of distortion. “The past is never-ending,” she repeats over a wash of cymbals and a fanfare of horns. That segues seamlessly into the folky gallop of “Long Distance Conjoined Twins”, a move that reminds me of nothing less than the opening one/two punch of Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea and a song that’s destined to become a huge sing-along (“Hey, Sa-MAN-tha!”). It also adds a surprising sonic wrinkle: the skronk of harmonica.
Let’s talk about that harmonica for a minute. It’s one of those instruments that, for better or worse, has strong associations with a particular style/genre, like the banjo with bluegrass or pedal steel with country. It screams acoustic folk/blues troubadour and is not an instrument I imagine necessarily working well in a loud punk band. It does, brilliantly at that, adding friendliness and homespun charm that offsets the record’s thornier edges. The folk element is certainly there as well. Three of six tracks feature MacDonald’s acoustic guitar and harmonica; perhaps folk/blues troubadour is not so off the mark. It’s also a signifier of MacDonald’s deep enthusiasm for Bob Dylan, an artist that decades of boomer canonization have made it easy to forget was once a young rabble-rouser.
In particular, the Dylan influence informs the strong songcraft and lyrical prowess on the album. MacDonald’s vivid word tapestries are wonderfully evocative, revealing a complex interiority of alternating pain and joy, anger and kindness. Animals frequently appear — insects, dogs, sea cucumbers, celestial tadpoles, and, of course, birds—suggesting a loving connection to the natural world. Yet, there is also an ever-present shadow of violence, both physical and psychological, both self-inflicted and otherwise. Necks break, and heads snap loose on “Long Distance Conjoined Twins”. There’s talk of washing it down with “a rifle or a uniform of gasoline” on “The Scientific Classification of Stingrays”. MacDonald also ponders how long it’s been since a president got assassinated, a passing thought born of frustration at the role oppressive authority figures play in all this inner turmoil. This frustration is expressed spectacularly on “Assisted Harakiri”, on which “cops are flammable if ya try” is turned into a furiously catchy refrain.
Ah, yes, “Assisted Harakiri”. Exploding out of the speakers at turbo boost velocity, this track is the cathartic peak of I Became Birds and the one that most reminds me of 1990s second-wave emo greats like Braid and Jawbreaker. “Oh! The treachery of anatomy,” which is as succinct and direct as it gets regarding conflicted gender identity. According to the liner notes, I Became Birds is dedicated to everyone who has struggled with that issue. Exquisite couplets like “Severed heads haloed, mouths full of railroads” lead up to transformational passages like “with lanterns lit in empty rooms, I became birds!” The song title alone — harakiri means “abdomen/belly cutting” in Japanese and is a ritual suicide of disembowelment by sword formerly practiced by samurai to avoid dishonor — is a potent metaphor for emotional conflict both within oneself and with an outside world that is both beautiful and hostile, often simultaneously.
After all that catharsis, the listener is cooled down with the gentle campfire folk of “This Old Country”, which ends with the line, “Will you teach me how to die? I have a whole lifetime to learn”. And there’s that harmonica again, a friendly and reassuring voice giving the listener a comforting hug. Over the course of these six gems in 18 minutes, the band packs a dynamic, powerful punch—tight rhythm section, thick and aggressive guitars when called for—but it’s MacDonald’s electrifyingly shredded delivery that provides the charge that sets Home Is Where apart and puts these well-crafted songs over so well. In a sense, this record plays like the aforementioned In the Aeroplane Over the Sea in compact form, with The Times They Are A-Changin’-era Bob Dylan inhabiting the body of Jeff Mangum and backed by a young Repeater-era Fugazi. The relative brevity and immediate rewards of the record make it endlessly replayable. It’ll be fascinating to see what they do next.