Alicia Merz cultivates wilderness within vulnerability. The New Zealand singer-songwriter known as Birds of Passage pens faded folk frayed by silvery drones, attic songs whispered while one’s parents quarrel downstairs. But The Death of Our Invention doesn’t sag with what’s stagnant; it soars with what’s sore. By the time her words are sung, all pain has been tamed, blooming like wildflowers in warped coffee tins.
“If Full of Care Part 1” and “If Full of Care Part 2” tiptoe across the tightrope of Merz’s tongue, bookending the album in brief a cappella. “The Love Song” skips a vocal duet across a placid lake of organ drones; the closing lyric, “you’re the last love song I ever had,” may sound terminal, but its spine-tingling tranquility begs to differ. “Another Thousand Eyes” pairs plunked piano with rippling guitar, Merz consoling herself to “crawl back in to my cocoon.”
“We removed our clothes a long time ago,” Merz intones on “Without the World.” The lyrics evoke lost innocence, conjuring bare bodies sunning on summer rocks—a holy ground for youth who spurn forces foreign to flesh. “Demons in Our Midst” drifts through billowing synth and frail guitar, the vocals nearly muted to erasure. Whirring keyboards roll off of a tundra on “Modern Monster,” Merz murmuring tales soured by Greek tragedy.
Despite her tender tales slick with loss, Merz avoids pity or self-immolation. Supporting a theme of regeneration, many songs fade into black, then emerge in another form: plummet into Lynchian unrest on “Modern Monster,” crawling through queasy dark; slowly evaporate on “Haunt My Existence,” scuttled in swirling ink clouds croaking with nightlife; or detour in closing on “Without the World,” swaying, alone, on a ballroom floor.
The Death of Our Invention‘s album cover pictures a plump rain drop suspended above a tumultuous sea. As if carrying life in its womb, the raindrop bulges in the waist: water bearing water, returns again to air. Besides being used in tears, the body uses water to sweat, digest, and even breathe. Where there is water, there is life. Where there is life, there is suffering. Friedrich Nietzsche, a 19th century philosopher who suffered (and survived) the void of his troubled era, says, “To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.”
In an age when tools use tool users, when culture capsizes community, many have forgotten that freedom is not in our hands, it is our hands. Birds of Passage reminds us that the death of our invention is the birth of our creation. Threading her fingers through our own, Alicia Merz purges the blistered, battered, bruised, helping the beleaguered black and blues rise to the surface, out of old shadows, and . . . sleep. (Todd B. Gruel)