Chicago is home to a lot of great music acts who produce a lot of fine records, and as happy as I am to shine a light on them, and sing their praises, I make a habit of measuring out my enthusiasm for any given project, of holding back on superlatives, reserving them for some projected moment when I’ll really need them. And behold, that moment is at hand: Birds of Chicago’s “Love in Wartime” is a flat-out extraordinary piece of work. I’ll go ahead and say it’s the best album by a local band in 2018*; and if something comes along in the next seven months that makes me reappraise that statement… well, we should only be so goddamn lucky.
After the seismic shock that rattled the American firmament in November 2016, it took a while for culture to shake off its stupefaction and address the new reality. We’re just now seeing the first artistic responses to the rise of Trumpism, and they come in two varieties: expressions of existential despair or testaments to the enduring human spirit. You can tick “Love in Wartime” in column B. What the album does, and does profoundly well, is resurrect both the psychic and sonic aura of rock’s early seventies—another bitterly awful period in American history, which paradoxically provoked an outpouring of gorgeous, euphoric music. Listening to “Love in Wartime,” I was struck by its resonances to artists who haven’t crossed my mind in decades: Leon Russell, Merry Clayton, Delaney & Bonnie, Melanie Safka, Lee Michaels. There’s the same focus on rapturous melodies, infectious hooks, athletic solos; the same use of harmony and rhythm as tools of joyous defiance.
There are things that set “Love in Wartime” apart from its antecedents—the chief of these being the lyrics, which are woven through with uncanny insight and ingenuity. Seventies pop-rock didn’t infuse the air waves with too many couplets like “We are not made from metals hammered / We are lightning, clay and grammar,” or extravagant imagery like, “I feel caverns underneath my feet / Rivers dark and rivers fleet / So I roll and so I wind / I slip and I weave and I duck and I dive / That’s all.”
The only problem with lyrics of this caliber is that they risk getting lost in the sheer sensual assault of the musicianship. Among the prior age’s lyric heavyweights, Joni Mitchell solved the problem by keeping her arrangements spare enough to set her poetry in high relief; Leonard Cohen by subjugating the music to the words from the get-go. (Listen again to “Hallelujah”: the sophistication is all in the text, the music being no more complex than a lullabye.) There are moments in “Love in Wartime” when you have to refer to the lyrics sheet to confirm what you’re hearing. But it’s extravagantly worth the effort.
Husband-and-wife team JT Nero and Allison Russell wrote all the album’s material, which forms a folk-pop suite. It describes an arc of striving against discouragement (“Sun is older / Than you are / Younger too / Younger still by far / Oh brother / That’s a fact / So you play for keeps / You do not take love back”) and moving on into discovery (“Pain will come and pain will go / Keep it moving down the line / Namaste my Derecho / Come on, rock me in my time”). Throughout, Nero’s gravelly vocals are irresistibly urgent, while Russell’s uncannily supple instrument provides nearly every other required texture. In the title tune—one of the album’s highlights—there’s a little catch in her voice that’s like a cool, clear pool; you fall into it every time, and with something like relief and release.
As I said: it’s an extraordinary album… and a triumphant response to a time of arrogance, rancor and division. Which is not to limit its merits to the merely sociopolitical; by far the greatest attraction for me is that “Love in Wartime” will be shedding its life-affirming transcendence long after the current crisis has settled into a malevolent memory.
* Since writing the first draft of review, I’ve learned that Nero and Russell now live in Nashville, and thus can’t strictly be considered a local band. But Birds of Chicago was formed right here, and unless they change the name I’m taking that as a testament of belonging. Also, “Love in Wartime” was recorded here, at Steve Albini’s studio. And if any other supporting argument is required, consider this yearning, euphoric passage from the song “Travelers”: “Fullerton Street / Fullerton / Look how young you’ve grown to be / All these children! / You wear them well / They cling to your robes / They’re under your spell.” (And yes, I know it’s really Fullerton Avenue; but this isn’t an album over which to split hairs.)
“Love in Wartime” is available for purchase or download through the usual channels, including Birds of Chicago’s website.
Robert Rodi is an author, spoken-word performer and musician who has served as Newcity’s Music Editor since 2014. He’s written more than a dozen books, including the travel memoir “Seven Seasons In Siena.” His jazz quintet recently completed a two-year residency at Uncommon Ground, and he regularly hosts a jazz singers’ jam at Lizard’s Liquid Lounge. His literary and music criticism has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, Salon, The Huffington Post and many other national and regional publications.