Print newspapers are prominent mise-en-scène components in Gabriel Kahane’s new star-studded album Magnificent Bird, which isn’t odd until you ask yourself, how many people do I know who still read print newspapers? The papers in these songs are soft, passive harbingers of doom — delivered innocently on porches, read with difficulty in low light — but are also a clue into the personal experiment Kahane embarked on in 2020. He swore off the internet for a year, so if these songs are any indication, it seems a symptom of that experiment was needing to read a ton of newspapers.
“The Hazelnut Tree” opens with a newspaper, and follows through with some of my favorite lyrics of the album — images of peace found in the concrete aspects of life, and made precious by an oppressive, anxious atmosphere.
Last night we three went outside,
Looked at the harvest moon, hollow
And high in the sky where the satellites beam
The faces of men to our neighbor’s TV screen —
It’s more information than I need.
Kahane’s dense style of songwriting, unless you’re really into it, can come off like he’s trying to sound clever in every moment, from the chain metaphors to the turn-on-a-dime chord progressions. While there are significant moments in Magnificent Bird that are distracting in this way, in “The Hazelnut Tree” and many others, he strikes a satisfying balance, getting closer and closer to what feel like perfect three-minute songs.
“Chemex” has this incredible Bach fermata on the word “dread.” This hymn to the coffee ritual could be hokey, but it speaks to what so many of us have learned in the past two years, that investment in daily ritual is a coping mechanism, and making coffee can be a solemn affirmation of life moving on. If Kahane had lingered too long on the dramatic line reveal, “On the bottom of your mug is a map of Ohio, at the bottom of your heart is a map of your dread,” I would have rolled my eyes into next Tuesday. But the blessed brevity of this minor landing, and how quickly we return to Kahane’s steady hymn strengthens the conceptual heart of this song — the dissonance of daily essential tasks performed alongside the steady drip of world-rending news.
These tracks show that he has restraint, but others show that he doesn’t always use it. Where this album shines incredibly bright is where his paintings of anxiety relate to issues that are most dire and relatable. Where it falls flat are in his navel-gazing turns of phrase, that at best are overwritten metaphors and at worst nothing salads. “We are the Saints” includes this throw-away verse: “If this is all there is/Hashtags and genesis/And heads of state all made from/Papier-mâché́.” I have no idea what this combination of “hashtags” and “genesis” is supposed to evoke, if anything the vague complaint about “hashtags” makes him sound crochety, and taking “figure head” literally is trite and meaningless.
And then there’s his somewhat tone-deaf titular track “Magnificent Bird” about quitting the internet because he experienced professional jealousy. I’m all for nuance, but it’s hard to be empathetic when he can just call up Andrew Bird and Caroline Shaw and Chris Thile and Nathalie Joachim to jump on his album.
Maybe my frustration with these flimsy moments is heightened because the musical, formal, and lyrical unity of other tracks like “Sit Shiva.” To sit shiva is a Jewish practice of mourning, where family gathers to tell stories of a loved one recently lost. This song describes Kahane’s experience having to sit shiva for his grandmother virtually, leaning in to see and hear family members share stories from his laptop screen, having to see people he loves try to hold back tears from such a distance. The song glitters with that sentiment of celebrating a life within an actively grieving family — sharing funny memories, singing favorite songs, and honoring above all else the suddenly alone husband, bereft of his wife.
It is wonderfully mysterious how Kahane manages to thread this needle musically, but I think it is in the exact make-up of the repeating falling theme that latices through the song. It briskly walks down unexpected harmonies, cries as it turns back to the top before falling and landing sweetly. It wafts by so quickly but contains so much. The goosebumps and the tears come so easily and happily.