Birds of Chicago Hold On through Real Midnight

Photos courtesy of Sacks & Co / Birds of Chicago

There’s not a more joyful, blissful album that embraces the perils of winter, the vagaries of loss, and the ominous underbelly of looking-back-wistfully than Birds of Chicago’s latest, Real Midnight. Songwriter JT Nero captures the dark underbelly of our happiness, and the ways that the darkness overtakes us when we least expect it, with a canny glance at the twists of fate that underlie the sunniest of days. His songs propel us into mourning and grief, while at the same time celebrating that fleeting moment when we remember that, once, everything was all right with the world. And maybe — just maybe — it can be that way again.

The album opens simply enough with Allison Russell’s soaring voice poised against some spare guitar arrangement. It’s not very long, however, before her voice takes flight, urging us to get ready for the darkness that’s encroaching. Time passes almost too quickly for us to hold onto — “Twilight midnight then dawn/Billion stars then there was one” — and before we know it the night passes and we’re left with a fleeting memory (“I remember you that night/So young and full of pride/Do I cross your mind?”) In the end, we can either hold on or we can let go, and Russell’s pleading vocals escalate from those first spare whispers into a shout:

Hold on, hold on
Tomorrow’s on you like a pack of wild hounds
Storm’s coming through, top’s gonna blow
Hold on tight, don’t let your baby go.

Nero ups the ante on “Remember Wild Horses,” which opens sparely with Russell leaning somberly against minor chords. Before long, we’re galloping off like title animals into the realms of memory. It stirs anger at the loss that it dredges up, as well as the beauty of a love once held close. Like wild horses, our memories are beyond our control — they can’t be tamed. More than that, though, those relationships we once thought were our most beloved, the ones we recall most fondly, that we remember as the loveliest, escape our grasp like wild horses running free. We’re never able to capture them because we were never able to live fully into them in the first place.

Remember wild horses running
Oh! With the morning in their eyes
Ears pinned back on the free land
Under free blue skies
You don’t have to wipe away your tears
Go on and let ‘em fall
You’re just remembering wild horses, is all.

Russell’s mournful cry opens “Kinderspiel (Child’s Game),” as minor piano chords wrap themselves like a blanket around a tale of a very un-childlike game of love and loss. Once upon a time, the singer dreams of a singular beauty and the implicit possibility of a world in which colors blossom verdantly. Her desires are quite simple:

I wanted peace like a river
I wanted peace like a river
And through the blinds young winter
Through the blinds young winter.

The album’s title track recalls some of the best of the music of that now-forgotten early '70s band Mercy, but Mercy lacked the lyrical sophistication of Birds of Chicago.

“Real Midnight” could just as easily come off a Van Morrison album — there are riffs here that recall “Hardnose the Highway,” “Warm Love,” and “Avalon Sunset.” As the centerpiece of the album, the song opens with a recognition that darkness is real, that we’re going to have hard times that we won’t be able to reconcile with the love we’ve been handed, and somehow we’ll have to get to the dawn. The first verse opens on apocalyptic desolation:

Real midnight’s gonna come
real midnight’s gonna come
real wolves at your door
with blood on their tongues
now what you gonna do
with your days left in the sun?

In the midst of this desolation, Russell soulfully implores her lover to “give me tender kisses,” for only love can stave off the encroaching emptiness. The song builds with such sonic gorgeousness, it reaches its apotheosis in the lyrical beauty of its final verses:

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 our love shine
when they’re lying on their backs
looking up through the pines.

There’s so much that’s perfect about that final verse: love overcoming fear and darkness, the enduring quality of a luminous love, the idea of passing along love from one generation to another through the shining fabric of a universe that expresses love. In the end, Real Midnight recognizes the power of loss to envelope us as well as the power of love to carry us through that loss.

I caught up with JT Nero by phone recently to chat about music and the new album.

Henry Carrigan: Tell me the story of the album.

JT Nero: You know, we kind of laugh about this now. This came out of what is by most measures was the happiest year of our lives: we got married, had a baby. Out of the midst of this venerable happiness, these are some of the most somber and darkest songs I've ever written. I feel like the more you open your heart up to a certain high-octane kind of joy, the more the darkness is thrown into high relief. I'm just starting to let some dappled sun back into the equation. I also felt like I had a certain set of songs that were in Joe Henry's wheelhouse and a set of fortuitous circumstances brought us together.

What's it like to work with Joe Henry?

He's a strong believer that records should be made in 3-5 days. He records sessions live so he can catch the core of a band's live performance. Joe wants to capture that moment when the musicians are trusting each other. Garfield House [Henry's studio] had ten years of good record making juju in it; it feels like the record just made itself.

How did you select the songs? Were there any you left on the studio floor?

I had about seven or eight songs that felt like they'd fit on a Joe Henry record. After Joe agreed to produce us, I happened to be in Tulsa, in the bar of the Hard Rock Hotel, and I wrote two more. There were about six or seven songs that we'd been playing out that felt a little too buoyant for the album. I'm not interested in making music that's mopey, but these songs express some infinite sadness in an indescribably joyous way.

Who are your three greatest musical influences?

Van Morrison. When I need to re-connect to power and to remind myself why I'm involved in this whole enterprise, he's the guy I go back to. He also reminds me of what happens when you open yourself to all possibilities.

Sam Cooke — melodically, no one can top him. John Prine [is] the reason I still ply my trade as a songwriter. I was hearing his songs when I was 22, and his songwriting involved these brutal, journalistic verses and then these choruses that were poetic flights of fancy.

How do approach songwriting?

When I was young, I approached songwriting like I was writing a thesis. I wrote several mediocre-to-awful songs in those years. Now, I simply try to pay more attention — that's a more natural way for me. Songs start with a fragment of a phrase or a fragment of a melody. If they attach themselves and don't leave, I start to pay attention. Once it starts to make emotional sense, then I think I have a keeper. Also, when songs feel pulled from the collective conscious, I feel they'll have resonance emotionally with listeners.

The more you write as an active form of self-rescue — in terms of turning inward — the more you connect with other people. You get at the most people when you get at yourself.

What are the elements of a great song?

Resonance of feeling. As you're honest to your raw feelings or emotions, and you know everyone can resonate with them, you have a shot at getting to more than a few folks.

There are some songs on the album that have a gospel inflection.

Well, we are not distinctly religious, but there is something about gospel music that resonates. In gospel music, you start with two basic premises: you have extremely beautiful music, and the music and lyrics bring you closer to God. We might not be trying to being anybody closer to God, but nothing else in this life has the power to bring you closer to others, yourself, the world than music.

Tell me about the song "Remember Wild Horses."

Man, I feel like I was following the John Prine trick on this one. The verses give you some concrete journalistic images but the chorus doesn't relate in a narrative way. It's a poetic reflection of the images getting dredged up in the verses. I was trying to write a tune that can do justice to the meaning of fragments and voices — voices speaking from the point of view of graceful madness and some voices speaking from anger. The phrase "remember wild horses" popped out with the melody, and I had to step back and ask what it means to ask, "What do you do when you know it's coming?" I felt like the song tied the whole album together.

The song acknowledges that winter is coming, and the question it, and the album, asks is "How are we going to take care of each other in the meantime?"

Thanks Henry for a great review and interview. It is a wonderful album as is their 2012 self-titled release. Something not mentioned, and I didn't realize until reading the liner notes of this new CD, is that Rhiannon Giddens has been a long time champion of this group and she appears on several cuts both as singer and banjo player.  Joe Henry is one of my favorite producers (not-to-mention singer and songwriter) and he does an excecellent job on this release as usual.