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‘The Birds Outside Sang’: A Moving Exploration of Trauma and Survival

4 Stars

{image id=1312207 align=right size=medium caption=true}Florist’s debut album “The Birds Outside Sang” is a beautiful, deeply affecting exploration of trauma and survival. Florist, a folky sweetly indie pop four-piece self-described “friendship project,” is led by Emily Sprague and features Rick Spataro, Jonnie Baker, and Felix Walworth. They are associated with the Epoch Collective, a Brooklyn-based group of artists and musicians who are making some of the finest D.I.Y., or, as they put it, D.I.T. (do it together), music in the Northeast. Florist’s “The Birds Outside Sang,” released on Double Double Whammy, has exactly the sonic aesthetic one would suspect, given its provenance, but is also distinctive for Sprague’s original, personal, and deeply felt lyricism and composition.

Written in the wake of a hit-and-run accident that left Sprague severely injured and impacted her ability to play and perform music, “The Birds Outside Sang” is an album about wounding and healing, vulnerability, trauma, recovery, and growth. Sprague sings about the accident and its aftermath—physical, psychological, musical, and otherwise. In her lyrics, she also frequently revisits childhood—that period of intense vulnerability and growth—re-analyzing, re-contextualizing, and coming to new understandings of her early experiences in light of her burgeoning adulthood.

Sprague is a quietly shattering songwriter, and many of the songs on the album are evocative and intense. “A Hospital + A Crucifix Made of Plastic” is a particularly powerful example. The song opens with Sprague singing “I'm in a mountain lake/There are hands all over my naked body and I've got a sting/In my right side arm and it's deep into my veins,”—a gripping and intense transition from metaphor into literal and visceral imagery. The song concludes with an image of the accident: Sprague sings, “I am weightless/I am bone/I am weightless/I am bone,” vacillating between the two images of her bodily experience of the accident before concluding with the hard awful finality of: “I am asphalt.” It’s a stunning, haunting listen.

In its focus on Sprague’s recovery from this accident, the album overall seems to be addressing the question of what is necessary for survival. While Sprague doesn’t offer definitive answers to this question, she points to music, nature, and human connection as factors that allowed her to endure. The music itself evokes the sounds of healing and survival. Many of the tracks were composed and recorded during Sprague’s recovery and feature her determined one-handed piano playing, as her left arm was severely injured. The songs convey the complex realities of recovery, especially the claustrophobia of convalescence. In some sense, the album could be considered an especially poignant and painful take on the concept of bedroom pop.

But it is the world outside the bedroom, particularly the natural world, that is necessary to Sprague’s vision of survival. As Sprague sings in “Thank You,” “This beautiful thing happens every day it's called the sun, it's called my blood, and it's the only thing making us want to be alive.” In this, Sprague seems to posit nature and the body as being deeply and intimately connected. The will to endure has a deeply natural, physical, bodily component in Sprague’s vision. While in “Thank You,” Sprague seems to discount the importance of friendship to survival— she sings “I'm really grateful for the people I've met but that won't make me die any less”—throughout the rest of the album, she emphasizes the importance of friendship to one’s perseverance.

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In the album’s title track, Sprague begins by singing about being trapped inside, listening to birds outside singing. She continues, darkly: “Inside my head /I'm a child again/but there's a pill for that/and I'll pray to death.” She moves from these somber meditations to a tender paean to friendship in the second half of the song, asking over and over again, shakily, determinedly, earnestly: “Do you and your friends wanna come into the field and watch the fireworks shoot up into the air?” Through this, she seemingly emphasizes friendship, community, and connection as something affirming, life-giving, deeply powerful.

This central theme of the album, the sustaining power of love and friendship, is also implicitly celebrated in the wonderful track “Rings Grow.” The song opens with Sprague per usual singing about wounding and healing in a poetic, imagistic fashion—here she imagines herself as a tree, with bark peeling away and branches re-growing—feeling herself to be both the dying bark and the developing branches. She then sings about the continuity of self in the face of change both wistfully (“If there's one thing that I believe/It's that the wind can make you a child again”) and more darkly (“If there's one thing that I believe, it's that my body will be the same wherever I bleed.”) On the chorus of the song, all her bandmates sing along with her, their voices blending together in wordless vocalization, lending each other support and strength. It is a powerful vision of the healing capacity of community.

—Staff writer Amy J. Cohn can be reached at amy.cohn@thecrimson.com

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