As far as pairings of bands and their album titles go, The Clearing by the Bowerbirds feels like a foregone conclusion. Pittsboro's Phil Moore and Beth Tacular have already released two sets that suggest a restful spell in a sylvan cabin in the North Carolina woods; if anything, the name The Clearing might put too blunt a point on what Bowerbirds do, when nothing the pair and their cast of collaborators do is ever very blunt. In the past, they've very rarely adorned their folk-like music with showy production flourishes. Still, there's always been a beguiling and elusive aspect to even the most straightforward Bowerbirds song, as the quiet nylon-string guitar twists in a peculiar pattern or as the harmonies move with unexpected ascendance. This elusiveness has been inviting; prior to The Clearing, Moore and Tacular drew lines that were most definitely true, even if not particularly straight, at least as far as folk-music norms go.
That truth was easier to suss out when Bowerbirds took the less-is-more approach to songs. Previous highlights, like "In Our Talons" from Hymns for a Dark Horse or "Northern Lights" from Upper Air, succeeded in part because of minimal fuss. But a few verses into The Clearing opener, "Tuck the Darkness In," it's clear that Bowerbirds aren't so interested in keeping things simple anymore. The song begins innocently enough, with some brushed drums, gentle strumming and a patter of vibraphone. Just as it seems to settle into its pleasant shuffle, though, trembling violins enter the fray, circling above the song like a swarm of malevolent spirits. They subside for a moment but finally return with a vengeance near the end, joining forces with the sort of triumphant guitar-and-drums rock crescendo that one might expect from The Arcade Fire, not the pleasant Bowerbirds. It's, at once, a gambit and a gauntlet.
Given the behind-the-scenes tribulations that occurred ahead of this record, such a bold opening bow only seems appropriate. Not only did Tacular end up hospitalized with a mysterious life-threatening illness, but she and Moore—romantically involved prior to the founding of Bowerbirds—ended their long relationship, but not the band. Whether Bowerbirds would have continued had Moore and Tacular not decided to recommit to their relationship after a year apart is something even they might not be able to answer. The events had a profound, potent effect on the music they subsequently made.
If the pair had any trepidation about expanding their sonic palette to move beyond their rustic past, The Clearing shows no signs of such fears. Hymns for a Dark Horse was recorded on the cheap with multi-instrumentalist Mark Paulson, while Moore made most of Upper Air by himself using GarageBand. This production, though, took shape over many months and several studios, including the April Base room owned by Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, a longtime Bowerbirds booster. While prior albums have had their brief dalliances with this kind of instrumentation, spare moments are the outliers here. With its focus on Moore's plaintive voice (and with some tasteful string accompaniment), "Walk the Furrows" is probably what most folks would expect from a Bowerbirds record. Instead, what The Clearing really offers in great big blocks is more in line with a song like "Stitch the Hem," a number full of detours and stylistic playfulness. Bowerbirds even end the record's closer, "Now We Hurry On," with what can be best described as two minutes of actual twinkling.
Even though the ambiance of "Brave World" sounds more like something you'd hear on a Radiohead album, and the introduction to "Hush" seems held together only by Tacular's voice and little else, at their core, these remain Bowerbirds songs. No matter how expansive and unfettered their music might become, the group's talk of earthbound things—be they ponds and trees or life and love—keeps these songs from losing their bearings. The Clearing might sound like nothing Bowerbirds have ever done before, but in many ways, it's just them doing what they've always done, only better.