On Blandness, And The Tragedy Of Birdy

Birdy - Birdy

If you thought that my scathing treatise on Cher Lloyd earlier this year was a tad harsh, you might want to look away now. I genuinely feel a little bad for having written what you’re about to read – for it seems cruel to shoot down the dreams of a fairly talented 15 year-old girl as she takes her first big steps into the unforgiving music industry, but I feel that something needs to be said. Essentially, my problem isn’t with Birdy herself, but what she represents – music reprocessed and repackaged into its blandest and most easily-palatable form. It’s all so calculatedly inoffensive that it comes full circle and irks my by its mere existence.

I’ll admit that I’m obviously not the target audience for Birdy’s music – she’s clearly being aimed at people who don’t know or care that 10 of the 11 tracks on her self-titled debut are covers. But for anyone who’s familiar with the original versions of these songs, the most obvious flaw with Birdy’s covers is that most of the time they simply seem watered down in comparison. Take her version of The Naked & Famous track ‘Young Blood’, which cribs the synths from the original but buries them deeper in the mix, sucking the track dry of any sense of exuberance. Her version of The Postal Service’s ‘The District Sleeps Alone Tonight’ suffers from similar problems – someone has evidently taken all of about 5 minutes to create a poor pastiche of Dntel’s beats in Garageband, while the skittering electronica that made the original so interesting is absent entirely. And if you’re looking for evidence that copious overdubs are no substitute for a well-delivered vocal harmony, then look no further than her take on ‘White Winter Hymnal’, which takes the pastoral beauty of Fleet Foxes and makes it sound like little more than a midly pleasant vocal exercise.

The other major flaw is that Birdy simply cannot inhabit these songs in the same way that their original composers did. Take the album-closer, a cover of The National’s ‘Terrible Love’ – a song written by a man in his late 30s, lest we forget. While not as ill-fitting as other National songs might have been (‘Afraid Of Everyone’ or ‘Sorrow’, to name but two potential candidates), there’s still a certain disconnect between the lyrics and the girl who’s singing them – “And I can’t fall asleep without a little help” just doesn’t seem as plausible coming from the mouth of a 15-year old girl. It doesn’t help that the original’s visceral crescendo is replaced by a hackneyed string section and the least imaginative drumbeat possible.

It’s a problem that plagues the entire record – try as she may it imbue these songs with emotion, the words that come out feel either insincere or just plain meaningless. The semi-nonsensical lyrics of Thomas Mars were never going to be a great candidate for Birdy’s attempts at sincerity, and her take on Phoenix’s ‘1901’ feels a little forced because of it. Her most famous cover, that of Bon Iver’s ‘Skinny Love’ also suffers, simply because you just can’t quite imagine Birdy having experienced the same heartbreak that runs through the song’s lyrics – and while she gives it her all, in places it almost feels like she’s over-emoting to compensate.

Admittedly, there are places when her stripped back versions come closer to working than others. Her cover of The XX’s ‘Shelter’ is mercilessly stripped of its late-night ambience, but if you push Birdy’s age to the back of your mind then it almost, almost sounds believable – certainly, it would be churlish to deny that it’s a strong vocal performance regardless of that. Similarly, her take on Cherry Ghost’s ‘People Help The People’ is perhaps a little over-sincere, but still works better in a thematic sense than a lot of these songs.

The other problem with Birdy is that it essentially tells us next to nothing about Birdy herself, other than that she’s got a decent singing voice and can play the piano. Expecting a 15-year old to be a brilliant songwriter is arguably unfair – but it’s equally unfair to Birdy herself that she’s hardly been allowed to express her own voice on this record. She’s essentially just a vehicle for other people’s songs – none of which are at particularly unpalatable in their original forms, rendering her versions pretty but pointless.  The whole exercise is akin to taking some nice wallpaper and then painting it beige.

Perhaps, in cynical marketing terms, this is Birdy’s foot in the door – a record that bends over backwards to be accessible in order to warm up a potential audience for a future album of self-penned material – certainly, you get the impression that someone at her record label believes she could occupy the same sort of space as the currently omnipresent Adele. The one window into what might lie ahead for her is ‘Without A Word’, the sole original composition on the record – it’s not desperately exciting, but it does feel surprisingly mature, and it’s an indication of a potential future for Birdy that doesn’t involve being a musical wholesaler of bland indie and folk covers. I almost hope she does get the chance to make a record on her own terms (and maybe prove cynical hacks like me wrong in the process) – but it feels like there’s every chance that she may be forgotten about before she’s even old enough to legally drown her sorrows. I suppose that sales of Birdy will ultimately decide her fate – and that, in itself, is the tragedy of young Jasmine Van den Bogaerde. For the British public are fickle beasts, so even if she does get the chance to make a second record, there’s no guarantee it’ll be a success. Just ask Duffy.

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