I find it ironic now that I opened my review of John Moreland’s last album with the statement that he doesn’t make the same album twice, because while I remained a fan of his pivot into ambient and folk-electronica on LP5, I certainly didn’t expect him to double down on that sound. Granted, I was also always of two minds with that album. Keep the arrangements low-key and strengthen the singer-songwriter core without overtaking it, and you have an experiment that can work. Push it farther, however … well, I found “Ugly Faces” to be a pretty compelling track ahead of this album, but Birds in the Ceiling is, sadly, akin to a house of cards collapsing, pushing farther with a formula I mostly liked before but showcasing what can happen when it gets to be too much for its own good.
And really, despite the biggest noticeable shift being those fragmented electronic stutters that creep in and overtake a mix that only rarely feels well-blended, I’d argue that it’s only part of the larger problem here. Don’t get me wrong – LP5 was a demanding slow-burn as well, but at least everything worked in tandem to strengthen that singer-songwriter core, uplifting a groove or melody, at most. This sounds like a much more fractured project – almost by design, to be fair, but certainly not for the better – aimed at operating on a more skeletal level, where at best you’ll get overmixed synthetic ambiences that may hit the mark in contributing toward that fractured core, but certainly don’t sound flattering when blended in with spare acoustics with no tonal consistency – or consistently awful vocal production, for that matter; Moreland is not the type of singer one wants to emphasize with this sound. And for what is one of his shorter albums, it’s hard to stay engaged with this for the full runtime.
But you know, even though I think this takes what was a respectable formula from before way too far, I think I’d still be more forgiving if the writing could make up for it. And in a way, I get what Moreland and producer Matt Pence were going for here – a hazy, disconnected wave of emotions no doubt inspired by the weight of the past few years, where that adrift feeling is part of the ultimate point in the sound and writing. And while there’s a part of me that thinks emphasizing mood or feeling over Moreland’s traditionally dense poetry that requires a deeper focus is missing the point entirely, in a way, I really wanted to support the idea – especially when “Ugly Faces” serves as a great opener in establishing how old demons have resurfaced for him and the feelings of self-doubt and anxiety anchor this project.
… I just wish that fragmentation didn’t also affect the songwriting structure, because for an album that sounds overcooked, the writing feels surprisingly empty or without a deeper point – content with coasting on what is a frankly nihilistic tone throughout that’s dark even for Moreland’s standards. And if there was a end point to help it come together that might make up for it – the most we get is the legitimately excellent love song in “Neon Middle June” that serves as the lone moment where the vocal production isn’t unbearable – but there’s just a lack of answers or closure to be found on this deeper path. And look, after these past few years, I can understand that, but you can’t approach weighty topics on a surface level like this. “Cheap Idols Dressed in Expensive Garbage” kinda-sorta approaches a potentially interesting point of social commentary for the times … and then does nothing but rely on that jarring hook. “Claim Your Prize” tries to assuage a friend in need in a similar headspace … but also comes back to around to a nihilistic framing that, sure, might be a valid response in a search for personal fulfillment and answers that just don’t come, but doesn’t make for an enticing listen. Folks, I don’t know. I’d place all of Moreland’s previous albums as among my favorites of their respective years. So I say this as a fan: This was a chore to sit through.
- Favorite tracks: “Ugly Faces,” “Neon Middle June”
- Least favorite track: “”Cheap Idols Dressed in Expensive Garbage”