John Moreland
Photo: Angelina Castillo / Courtesy of All Eyes Media

John Moreland Hears ‘Birds in the Ceiling’ Even When They Are Not Real

John Moreland employs sampling, sequencing, and mellotron to turn his seemingly traditional story songs into something more avant-garde and original on Birds in the Ceiling.

Birds in the Ceiling
John Moreland
Bad Omens/Thirty Tigers
22 July 2022

John Moreland‘s new album might have you literally searching for Birds in the Ceiling. Its nine tracks are filled with haunting blips and tweaks that seem to squeak out of the production between the more conventional guitar, keys, bass, and drum notes. For those unfamiliar with the Oklahoma native, he began as a more typical singer-songwriter in an Americana mode. Six albums later, he now employs sampling, sequencing, and mellotron to turn his seemingly traditional story songs into something more avant-garde and original. That’s matched by the evolution of Moreland’s lyrics. He observes the world, the people he loves and has loved, and finds the more clarity he finds, the greater his confusion.

“I’m a visitor here like everywhere else,” the singer proclaims in “Lion’s Den”, a song that suggests we are all victims of Stockholm Syndrome no matter who we are and where we are. The human condition is one of being untethered to reality as we look for something or someone to believe in. This feeling of alienation is compounded by the fact that we can’t stay connected to others. Once we become cognizant about forming a relationship, we start to separate into our individual identities. The musical accompaniment to the lyrics combines synths and electronic percussion with a lovely acoustic strummed guitar line. Stray sounds come and go like shadows atop Moreland’s low conversational voice. This has a purposeful disorienting effect.

Dreams, memories, delusions, mirages, sleep—the ambiguous states of consciousness—form the matrices of the individual tracks. The narrator continually wakes up to find he’s not actually sentient. Are those “Birds in the Ceiling” from the title song real? Moreland uses their singing as a metaphor for the mix of imagination and authenticity that make up our corporeal existence. But instead of using avian field recordings, Moreland uses imitative synthetic sounds to accompany lyrics such as “So let a bird be a bird, let a train be a train / Let the sky be the sky, let the rain be the rain.” The song (and album) end dramatically with the statement, “Death alone is certain, but life is a beautiful question.” The answer to life is death, but no one knows what that really means.

Moreland purposefully doesn’t use authentic bird sounds in the song “Birds in the Ceiling”, but he does elsewhere on the album, particularly in the beautiful “Dim Little Light”. It’s the most acoustic song on the record, mostly just him and his guitar as he sings quietly about feeling “overjoyed”. The last 15 seconds of the cut is just the sound of a lone bird tweeting into space. The dim light of the title is the one inside of ourselves. True illumination comes from within.

The world around us is full of mendacity and illusion. Moreland complains about “cheap idols dressed in expensive garbage”, “the war on truth”, “the lies you tell yourself to try and feel okay”, and “standing in a pose, wearing someone else’s clothes”. But he’s not bitter or even cynical. Moreland sings in a restrained voice that implies an appreciation for the mix of good and bad that make up the world. The odd sounds he has added to his music show that life is more complicated than he once expressed.

RATING 8 / 10