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John Moreland’s ‘Birds in the Ceiling’ Packed with Darkly Powerful Songs

By Kenny Berkowitz

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In this latest post-band incarnation, singer-songwriter John Moreland is producing just enough sound to fill the tracks for these nine songs. In the foreground, he’s playing solo acoustic guitar: “It’s a 1951 Martin 00-18 that has belonged to my dad since he was 12 years old,” he writes; and in the background, he’s adding Mellotron, sequencing, and samples, with occasional help from John Calvin Abney (keyboards), Matt Pence (drums), and Bonnie Whitmore (bass, cello). 

John Moreland 
Birds in the Ceiling
(Old Omens/Thirty Tigers)

It works surprisingly well, even when the background feels thin, because it frees Moreland to dig deeper into the darkness of these songs, to focus on a life where death is the only certainty. It lets him rail against “cheap idols dressed in expensive garbage,” warn about “seeing ugly faces in your dreams,” caution against “passing down our grief and illness,” and take aim at people who live their lives in delusion, inviting them to “come on down and claim your prize/ no one makes it out alive.” These are angry, unsparing jeremiads, but even in the bitterest ones, there’s some small counterbalance on keyboard, some echoing sonar ping, some mechanical drumbeat to fight back solitude. 

Against that backdrop, the guitar parts sound almost sweet, maybe even reassuring, providing a little bit of comfort in a world where “we’re all chasing the same carrot/ with the choices we inherit/ cry till you can’t bear it.” The backing keeps Moreland from sounding as solitary as he feels, avoiding the traps of singer-songwriter over-sincerity, and make his guitar-playing sound positively radiant—a strong, steady pick pattern beating back against the ocean waves.

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