Birds in the Ceiling

REVIEW: John Moreland “Birds in the Ceiling”


John Moreland — Birds in the Ceiling

Tulsa’s John Moreland has maybe the most ruggedly pretty voice in Americana. Its singular gentle sadness isn’t nearly enough to ready the listener for the devastating gut punches found across his catalog. From the loss detailed in “Cherokee” (from 2015’s High on Tulsa Heat) or the chances missed in “Love Is Not an Answer” (off 2017’s Big Bad Love), loneliness and regret have never sounded so sweet. At the beginning of 2020, though, Moreland began to subtly change his approach, adding bits of sampling and synth to his heartland sound. That album, LP5, was released mere days before lockdowns began, and Moreland never had the opportunity to fully road test his new musical proposition. That sound, along with a new tour, are back with his latest release, Birds in the Ceiling, in which Moreland doubles down on his curious experiment while still pulling the lyrical rug out from under listeners.

Like its immediate predecessor, Birds in the Ceiling was produced with Matt Spence, who further encourages Moreland’s open minded approach. Lead track “Ugly Faces” combines a synthesized drumbeat with a plaintive piano line while Moreland sings of the isolation he’s encountered in life – “My back was to a corner, lonely in a crowd/I couldn’t hear you calling, the bullsh!t was so loud.” That unmoored feeling continues into “Lion’s Den.” Paced by Moreland’s acoustic line (he plays all of the guitars on the record, and it stands out amongst the electronic flourishes), the singer explores the disconnection he felt over the past two years – “Some clothes in the drawer, a few books on a shelf/But I’m a visitor here, like everywhere else.”

Moreland expresses a lack of patience for fakery on No Birds in the Ceiling – “Cheap Idols Dressed in Expensive Garbage,” which sprung from a social media site showing preachers wearing designer clothing, repeats its title as a mantra against conspicuous consumption while the music drifts, giving the message an unhurried moment to sink in. And “Generational Dust” glides along on a languid piano and acoustic bed while peeling away the lies protecting the status quo – “It’s the perfect grift/All your cherished myths.”

Even with his reluctant cynicism, though, Moreland’s songwriting, regardless of arrangement, has always made room for gentleness. Empathy is at the heart of the quietly devastating “Claim Your Prize” – “When your certain kind of sorrow came and touched me without warning.” And “Neon Middle June” flashes back to the “weird and lovely” time that the singer and his wife spent together during the depths of the pandemic. Sparked by John Calvin Abney’s improvised piano line (serendipitously captured on tape during a studio warm-up), Moreland comes to realize how beneficial that forced isolation was, especially since we may never see its kind again – “Time continues working, with an unrelenting hand.” Birds in the Ceiling is full of little moments like that – unexpected lyrical byways and musical detours that you’ll want to slow down and explore. Make the time.

Song I Can’t Wait to Hear Live: “Birds in the Ceiling” – the title track combines Moreland’s prettiest playing on the record with as good a closing thought as you’ll hear on any album – “Death alone is certain, but life is a beautiful question.”

Birds in the Ceiling was produced by Matt Pence and John Moreland, engineered by Pence and Charley Wiles, mixed by Pence and mastered by Howie Weinberg. All songs were written by Moreland. Additional musicians on the album include Pence (drums), John Calvin Abney (pianos, mellotron, synths, ukulele) and Bonnie Whitmore (bass guitars, double bass, cello).

Order Birds in the Ceiling (out July 22) here:

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