Perhaps the title of Bowerbirds’ third album refers to the removal of any previous studio limitations. The Clearing finds the Raleigh folk act wiping away the rougher sound of its previous releases, leaving the band’s most thoroughly polished recordings—and its boldest arrangements yet. Thematically, too, The Clearing is about sweeping away the past. In touring for 2009’s Upper Air, Philip Moore and Beth Tacular broke up for a year before finding their way back to each other, and the tension and relief of their resumed relationship drives the music’s urgency.
From its opening moments, “Tuck The Darkness In” demonstrates the band’s broader palette and fresh clarity of sound: Moore’s vocal is clear and present in the center of the mix, while acoustic and electric guitars, a piano, and a sturdy rhythm section spring forward around him. Halfway in, an eerie string section and hard-charging climax shift the feel unexpectedly into electric Andrew Bird territory. “In The Yard” reaches a similar peak, squeezing together horns, amp fuzz, and a handful of voices before the arrangements evaporate into acoustic guitars. (Portions of the album were recorded in Bon Iver’s Eau Claire studio, but little of the reverb favored by Bowerbirds’ Grammy-winning colleague appears here.)
The songs shift easily from multi-tracked escalation to meadows of vocal focus, never straying too long from Moore’s strong, emotive tenor. Without particular quirks or an overbearing personality, he offers confidence in his instrument and a careful handling of the band’s earnest melodies. He gives a convincing read to lines such as “This year, we need a deeper frost” in the stormy “This Year,” shading humbly optimistic when he sings, “The world is dust and I’m dust” a song later.
The album’s closest relative might be Midlake’s The Trials Of Van Occupanther, another release that paired vivid arrangements with an eye toward earthbound, existential concerns. But if that band wished for the resumption of a long-gone golden age, Bowerbirds take heart in the immediacy of their mortality. Barring another break-up, The Clearing marks the path toward the rest of a richly rewarding career.