ALBUM REVIEW: Hands – Wallis Bird.

Hands Artwork

Sometimes music submissions drop into your Emails and set you off down an internet search rabbit-hole to learn more about the artist. This is what happened to me immediately after receiving a copy of Hands. I found myself trawling through Spotify tunes, You Tube clips of German music shows and The Late Late Show, to help fill the chasm in my musical knowledge that was Irish singer-songwriter Wallis Bird. Since 2007 Bird has released six albums, won two Meteor Awards (Ireland’s annual music awards – including Best Female Artist) and in 2017 won the German equivalent of ‘Best Song-Writer'(‘Musikautorenpreis’).

Hands is Bird’s seventh studio album. Like most of us over the last few years, she has had time for a bit of self-reflection. Bird has used the time to turn the spotlight on herself and examine issues around self-improvement, stagnation, alcohol abuse, self-censorship, trust, and her relationship with her own left hand. The album’s alternate title is Nine-and a-half Songs For Nine-and-a-half Fingers. This is probably the appropriate point at which to inform you that when Bird was 18 months old she had an accident where she fell under a lawnmower and all the fingers on one hand were severed. Surgeons managed to reattach four, but one was lost – ‘This led me to relearn how to hold things, and when the time came, to play the guitar differently’. This in part helps to explain her distinct style, stance, sound, and attitude.

Wallis Bird by Tobias Ortmann

Sonically Hands has a truly Trans-Atlantic feel to it. Bird’s Irish vocals veer from urging to ethereal. The album was produced by Philipp Milner and recorded in studios in Germany – and songs on the album bristle with Euro-influenced electronica. Bird has explained she was heavily influenced by tunes she was listening to in the late 80’s and early 90’s – traces of American R & B, Jam and Lewis productions, and Paisley Park sounds can be heard scattered throughout the album. It’s a heady, eclectic, exciting mélange of styles repackaged as something bright, shiny and new for ’22.

The album opens with Go, a track already released as a single. It’s a song about seizing the moment and grabbing opportunities – ‘I’ll never move on if I don’t go now, ’cause everything, everything lies in the distance’. With this track Bird immediately presents her Europhile credentials. It has the aesthetic feel of music by artists like Christine and the Queens.

What’s Wrong with Changing is a lightning tour through the pivotal points in Bird’s life, the events that have influenced her to become the person she is today: growing up in uber-catholic Ireland; moving to London and witnessing firsthand police racism in Brixton; the triumph of the campaign for legalisation of marriage equality in Ireland in 2015. Musically the song is all about the rhythm. All the instruments, vocals, and backing vocals are utterly, pulsatingly percussive. It’s all a poly-rhythmic delight that can trace it’s lineage back to Janet Jackson‘s Rhythm Nation.

With I Lose Myself Completely, we are firmly back in the realm of 80’s European pop-electronica. The layers of staccato keyboards overlaying echoing synths, and programmed drum beats are a ‘now’ version of the sounds of A-Ha and Propaganda. With phrases like ‘I left home for a loaf of bread and I came back three days later’ and ‘I lose myself completely in the drinking in the moment and for days and days and days’ this is the song where Bird can be seen examining her past relationship with alcohol.

Power of a Word along with Dream Writing and The Dive is part of a triumvirate of songs where Bird most openly displays her Irish roots. Strings take preference to keyboards, and vocals are less strident and more ethereal. Melody and harmony replace rhythm as the foundations of the songs.

F.K.K. (No Pants Dance) is a good example of the ‘studio as instrument’. The song was inspired by Bird witnessing a neighbour’s end of lockdown party where some of the celebrants end up…well, naked. The song starts with the sound of an orchestra tuning-up, and briefly sounds like the intro to The Human League‘s Being Boiled. After that all bets are off. There are snippets of riffs that never reappear, sudden changes of pitch or tempo, it’s exuberant chaos, just like a good party should be.

The album is completed with the openly confessional I’ll Never Hide My Love Away – whose intimate nature is emphasised by the orchestration being limited to Bird’s vocals, guitar and a fiddle; Aquarius an up tempo song where at one point Bird imagines her own birth from her mother’s viewpoint; and the quirky Pretty Lies – a tune sprinkled with birdsong, improvised percussion and Munchkin-like backing vocals.

Hands is released on 27th of May via Virgin Records/Mount Silver Records. It’s available in digital, CD and double gatefold vinyl. The timing of the release date is wholly intentional and personal to Bird – coming as it does between the 7th anniversary of the Irish vote for marriage equality and the Dublin Pride Festival. It is an intensely personal album, but is simultaneously universally accessible. It addresses important issues and is a joy to listen to. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have more rabbit warrens to explore.

Ian Dunphy.

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