Or: Birds of Chicago get real gone.
Inspirational thinking and basic chronology reassure us that midnight is where the day begins—only what if, one day, it isn’t? What will become of the love we’ve made, once the final curtain falls and to dust we all return? Will our strange affections for one another light up the night sky like so many constellations—or will we be left looking likes fools, standing amidst collapsing sandcastles and crashing waves? These are the questions raised by a tough and soulful young band called Birds of Chicago on their breakthrough album Real Midnight, which might as well be called Final Midnight. It’s an album of eschatological hoedowns, campfire songs for the last night on earth. It’s a record of bruised and purple hearts, though not strictly speaking a breakup record; it’s an album of ticking clocks and rising tides, but not really an album about death. These eleven songs inhabit a moment of holy waiting, tentative joy, and dread anticipation: The moment when we might summon our every breath to exhale a cosmic love song even though we know it may soon fall silent; the moment when we might pledge to the beloved that we’ll love them ‘til the end of time, even as we wonder it that’ll be a thousand years from now or sometime before lunch tomorrow.
It’s an album of everyday apocalypses—sky full of fire, pain pouring down. The future is a time bomb, a death sentence for everything you’ve loved and built; and in the past there’s no solace—just the specter of all the things we’ll never get back. In the first song on the album, “tomorrow’s on you like a pack of wild hounds”—or, as another guy once put it, “time is a lion and you are a lamb.” On the song that follows, we meet a young man who’s trapped “alone in his room with the ghosts of past summers.” On “Pelicans,” the album’s keynote and benediction, there is only now: “I am a pelican/ in the eye of a hurricane/ Nothing good behind me/ Up ahead is pain.” In this harrowing chronology, a refrain like “I believe in yesterdays” feels like a taunt, “the times they are a-changin’” a threat. But here is the staggering and miraculous thing about the album: For all its heaviness, this isn’t a morbid song cycle. It’s not about being trapped in a corner, though most of its characters are; it’s about punching your way out, knowing that even if you go down swinging there was something sacred in your struggle. Real Midnight is about loving through the black eyes and the bruises, building something that may last forever even if you doubt there could be any such thing. It’s about moments of active, decisive engagement with another human, made meaningful by the long odds and ticking clocks. How does the pelican’s song conclude? “Let’s drift a while and feel the sun/ And oh, by god, you’ll know my love/ And I will know your love.” It’s a lover’s hymn from the eye of a hurricane; it’s delivered as a whisper, atop a pillow of fingerpicked strings and piano, but it’s got the roar of a battle cry.
The Birds of Chicago are, primarily, a husband and wife combo; JT Nero writes most of the songs and sings a couple of them in a coarse, whisky sour voice. Allison Russell writes a couple and sings even more, her own voice soaring and soulful. The record was produced by Joe Henry; he discovered the band through Rhiannon Giddens, their long-time champion, who also sings and plays throughout. There is deep cosmic significance to the recording of this album: As it happens, it was the very last album to be recorded in The Garfield House, Joe Henry’s famed home studio that birthed Solomon Burke’s Don’t Give Up on Me, Allen Toussaint’s The Bright Mississippi, several of Joe’s own albums, and at least a dozen other classics besides. As a For Sale sign went up over the Garfield’s door, this crew kicked up a mighty ruckus in the room below; a chapter was closed and a story ended, all wrapped up with fierce and fiery singing. Thus, ontologically, the album proves its own point.
Henry’s production is perfect for this band—an “Americana” roots group, by most contemporary classifications, whose arsenal here includes piano, organ, ukulele, guitar, banjo, clarinet, and voices lifted up in gospel choir effects. Yet the sound of the album doesn’t resemble any other Americana album you could name, at least not from recent years; there’s no fetishization of “twang” or “grit” here, none of the analog authenticity that T-Bone Burnett might have brought to these sessions. It sounds more like the musicians were playing together in real time and in close proximity, their instruments filling the basement space, spilling over into one another, creating a thick, warm sound that often swells to foundation-shaking heights. “Secular gospel” is a term the Birds like to use, and what’s here does indeed sound like a joyful noise; church music traditions shape everything here, making each song sound like a communal sing-along, the cumulative impact a wild yowl. The songs may be non-denominational, but their sound is one of affirmation, empathy, and inclusion; they are “secular” only if you deny humanism as its own kind of liturgy.
In Nero’s lyrics, pop songs are treated as folklore, little bits of them quoted throughout—the common vernacular for lovers in dangerous times. There are snippets of The Beatles here, “St. James Infirmary” there—so when one song title exhorts us to “Remember Wild Horses,” we do so: The weary, lived-in vibe of that Rolling Stones classic is a perfect touchstone for these weathered reflections. Russell and Nero trade verses, sketching out characters who believe in yesterday, even when it’s to their detriment. Nero’s verse is the most pointed: He runs into an old buddy who breaks into mirthless laughter: “I said man what’s so funny?/ He looked up at me like he wanted to punch me/ He said, ‘Nothing’s funny, not one damn thing is funny.’” (See also: “When you asked me how I was doing/ Was that some kind of joke?”) The man’s whole story tumbles out in two scant lines: “I loved her so long I believed that she loved me/ I promised her, she promised me.” When the chorus erupts and the two singers join their voices—his wounded, hers soaring— it becomes the kind of song designed to break down inhibitions and provide instant catharsis. “Remember wild horses running on with the morning in their eyes/… You don’t have to wipe away your tears, go on and let ‘em fall/ You’re just remembering wild horses is all.” It’s a song about pining; a song about how our fractured love so suddenly turns into memories that haunt. Like so many songs on this album, it seems to be sung from somewhere deep within a thundercloud, bass and drums bleeding into each other to form an ominous background rumble—the singers singing loud to overpower it.
But time is a dare, and love an act of resilience— even defiance. “Barley” has the feel of a spiritual, and offers one survivor’s metaphor after another: “The wind that shakes the barley will not shake me.” “The rain that floods the valley will not drown me.” “The fire that takes the kindling will not take me.” Of course every kindling has its day, but the song itself is a redemptive act, the singing a feat of courage. And it’s presented starkly: Russell sings it a capella for a couple of verses before before handclaps and percussion add their assent. The arrangement is stark, but the feel robust, humane. It’s a music of many voices rising into something collective; it’s a riot scene.
Russell is a singer of huge presence, and—like Giddens—she draws her power from restraint. Her star-making turn here is “Kinderspel,” where she wears naked desire in the raggedness of her voice—but listen for how she digs deep into her gut for the final chorus. It’s a big moment that’s earned by the song’s patient build. The lyrics address a lover from a place of hurt, and of need; they’re stark but hypnotic in their repetition: “You, you cared for me/ You, you cared for me/ Smelled like a wild sea/ Tasted just like a wild sea/ You were hungry, yeah you were hungry/ You were hungry so you took me/ You were hungry so you took me/ You took me ‘cause you were hungry.” A fleet piano solo carries the bridge, Jay Bellerose’s bass drum and cymbals provide dramatic accents, and then in the final verse Russell delivers what could be the album’s keynote: “Nobody keeps anything/ Nobody gets to keep anything.” Like Lucinda Williams, even her thoughts turn to dust, to transience—yet that’s just where her voice starts to soar. This is a song for the morning after real midnight; a song for picking up the pieces.
Nero, meanwhile, takes center stage on “Estrella Goodbye,” the last dance on the deck of the Titanic; a string-band throw-down for the very last days. It sounds like a party song, banjos plucking, drums building momentum, Russell’s gospel harmonies swooping in and out of the song, and Nero issuing a call for joy without inhibition. The temporary nature of things gives it its urgency: “Tomorrow’s gonna come and kill tonight/ Least you could do is put up a fight.” Or, as Joe Henry put it on Tiny Voices: “All manner of abandon is just the thing we need.”
The title song is a soulful number, performed with everyone huddled around the piano; it’s like a Van Morrison song in how it seems somehow to bottle the strange weather of the soul. Real midnight’s gonna come; there are real wolves at the door. But as Nero offers grim warnings, Russell’s singing about tender kisses. It might all end badly—or then again, it might not: “Real midnight’s gonna come/ But yeah, that’s alright/ We will be as the stars/ And put holes in the night/ In 10,000 years/ They’ll see how our love shines/ When they’re lying on their backs/ Looking up through the pines.” Maybe our love will last; maybe the ending of things is immaterial. What Real Midnight affirms is that every moment carries the possibility of redemption; it’s just a leap of faith, an act of joy away.