Wallis Bird Unleashes an Album for Our Troubled Times with 'Woman'
Prolific singer-songwriter Wallis Bird tackles inequality and a world in crisis with her compelling, freewheeling new album, Woman.
27 September 2019
Wallis Bird has been writing and recording music for several years. But this time around, she's made something that seems perfectly tailored for the crazy world in which we're now living. The Irish-born, Berlin-based singer-songwriter released her debut EP, Branches Untangle, in 2006, and while a handful of full-length studio albums – and a live album, Yeah! – have come along since, her latest release, Woman, is a heady soundtrack for a world consumed with Brexit, Trump, the climate change crisis, Black Lives Matter… you name it. "The world's changed a lot," she says in the album's press release, "and I've changed with it."
While the subject matter on Woman can be deep, the music is typical Bird. It's freewheeling, genre-busting, frantically energetic when the song calls for it, and beautifully soulful when that particular mood is required. Written entirely by Bird and performed almost exclusively by her – with production assistance from Marcus Wüst – Woman begins with "As the River Flows". The song dedicated to Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian refugee whose drowned body was famously photographed on a Turkish beach in 2015. "And as a river flows well you and I are made of water," she sings, "Surging into history, universal mystery." The lilting musical intro soon transforms into a syncopated shuffle as Bird breathlessly challenges immigration policymakers. "Aren't you brave enough to pave a basic decency for humankind?" Bird's lyrics could launch a thousand 21st-century slogans, but every word is deeply felt and isn't prone to commercialized platitudes.
Some of Bird's messages appear to convey more of a general plea for unity, such as on the self-explanatory "Love Respect Peace", a lovely hip-swaying mid-tempo groove where the title is something of a mantra in a difficult world. "My body is an indicator," she sings soulfully, "My words are my portrait…and I'm tired of hate." On "Salve", Bird suggests social media disconnection ("Addicted to being connected") over a simple, unpretentious funk arrangement that sounds like Annie Lennox recording a song written for her by Prince. The song has such an infectious groove you wish it had at least two more verses.
There are plenty more grooves where that came from, such as on the bluesy slow burn of "Woman Oh Woman", which Bird describes as "my proud gay homage to beautiful songs where men used the words like 'woman' as pride and protection". One of the most welcome aspects of the song's arrangement is an unwillingness to overburden it with a lot of classic soul tropes. The song seems destined for the present while adding just the right amount of tasteful, retro R&B touches – a gentle smear of strings, dramatic pauses, charming "shoo-bee-do-woop" backing vocals. Although the lead vocals should not ever be dismissed on this album; Bird's singing voice is a walloping powerhouse.
While soul music is undoubtedly an influential piece of Woman, there are also patches of other genres at work here. The irresistible power-pop stomper "That's What Life Is For" is propelled by a restless beat and Bird's impassioned vocals. "Rewrite the rules / They're written by fools / We could be equal / No one would lose / And that's what life is for." Bird stuffs so many great lines in just a little more than two minutes. Describing herself as "an angry pacifist", she admits, "Oh I trust my instincts / They help me through / If it smells like bullshit / It probably is too." It's a pure delight to hear this punk-ish manifesto living alongside the shimmering gospel piano of "Time Is Not Waiting" and the slinky funk of "Grace". It speaks volumes about Bird's eclectic tastes.
But one could argue that the lyrics are the cornerstone of this bold, brilliant, infectious album. The closing track "Repeal", while influenced by a hot-button Irish sociopolitical issue – namely, the country's 2018 abortion referendum – is a call for equality that resonates globally. "Let me decide what's good for me," Bird sings over the song's ethereal backdrop. "Let me distinguish what I need / The right to my own life and dignity / I need not your cruelty nor belief / I need you to simply just trust me." That could apply to hundreds of different situations that fuel oppression around the world. While the amendment that inspired the song was repealed, Wallis Bird hasn't stopped fighting for justice whenever she encounters it. Woman is proof that music can make you dance and sing while helping to change the world.