On this, their third full studio album, Birds of Chicago firm up what has been called their “secular gospel” sound, the trademark harmonies of Allison Russell and JT Nero still to the fore but with the music slightly more muscular as befits an album which slyly cocks a snoot at the world of fake news and atrocities we currently live in. It’s not a political album nor a collection of protest songs, rather it’s a celebration of life and love, the antidote they believe to troubled times, and not just romance. It’s all kinds of love, maternal, familial, the ties that bind us and shape us. As Nero said to The Chicago Times, “We didn’t want to make a heavy-handed record, but a joyful rock ’n’ roll record while acknowledging that the stakes feel high.”
Joyful rock ‘n’ roll certainly describes the album well. Moving on from the more rustic feel of its predecessor, Real Midnight, produced by Joe Henry, Love In Wartime finds Luther Dickinson co-producing with Nero as the band dip into rock and soul, name checking popular songs from the sixties throughout. The band are tight and well honed from constant touring, Chris Merrill on bass, Nick Chambers, drums, Drew Lindsay, keyboards and Javier Saume-Mazzei on percussion are punchy and perfect but it’s the guitarists, Dan Abu Absi and Joel Schwartz, who get the chance to shine on many of the songs. On the frontline of course are the voices of Russell and Nero, both superb singers but who really shine when they are conjoined, their evident empathy and affection for each other (they are a married couple) a joy to hear.
The album opens with the brief Intro Now/Sunlight with Russell wordlessly humming over spare piano and banjo, the piece evoking that lazy just awake feeling, the dawn promising a new day. From there clipped electric rhythm guitar launches the joyous soul sound of Never Go Back, a song which brings to mind Donny Hathaway while Nero gets to sing some falsetto and Russell slips in a sensuous verse sung in French preceded by an infectious giggle. This is classic Birds of Chicago territory, playful and uplifting while the production and dynamics are just perfect, the song ending with several powerful keyboard chords punched in over a Stax like drumbeat. Love in Wartime starts off as an achingly beautiful vocal duet as the pair celebrate the humdrum elements of daily life finding beauty in them (“Morning dew on the petal, steam on up from the kettle”) before a stirring slide guitar solo carries the song to a glorious end. It’s just wonderful and here one wonders if this is the album’s peak but that’s not so. There’s another eight songs to go and several of them achieve a similar height.
Travelers is a bright and sunny song with Russell singing of the elements and nature while managing obstacles in life as she sings, “So I roll and I wind, I slip and I weave and I duck and I dive” with the music also ducking and diving and enlivened with a cheesy keyboard solo. It’s followed by the powerful Try, a haunting duet with Nero pleading as the song progresses while Russell wails with a wonderfully soulful presence, the band trickling along with them with a careworn swampers like sound. It’s the most naked song on the album as it acknowledges emotional barricades and the hurt of loss. Nero’s words capture this sense brilliantly singing, “I don’t think that I can carry this heavy load all on my own, but Man if you’re still game you and I can carve our names in hidden caves and giant oaks.” Wringing out their emotions and fears here the song is devastating although it’s leavened by another sweet slide guitar solo.
It’s somewhat sunnier thereafter. Lodestar sparkles from the start, its gently propulsive beat enlivened by slivers of banjo and guitar before building up into a frenzied all out guitar and drum assault. Roll Away is a joyous Gospel tinged number which nods to the closing song as they welcome the boisterous windstorms which can wipe the slate clean while Baton Rouge is a wonderfully languorous reminder of the travails of New Orleans. Superlover garners together the whole aspects of love which weave throughout the album and is a perfect summation. It’s an almost perfect song with Russell immediately evoking Dylan and The Band in the opening words while the band deliver a sumptuous blend of glistening guitars and soulful organ. They close with the sly funk of Derecho, a defiant salute to resilience as the Derecho (a violent windstorm) approaches and they hide out awaiting the calm after the storm. As a metaphor for these troubled times it’s pretty neat and the band imbue it with a fine Sly & The Family Stone bounce. It’s a fine end to what is a magnificent set of songs on what is probably the best album of the year so far.
You can catch Birds of Chicago in May as they are touring the UK and Ireland. All dates here