Some questions are unpleasant. “I remember, maybe in 2007, when we first started being a band,” says Bowerbirds’ Phil Moore, “and we had an interview with somebody—I forget who—and they asked us, ‘What will the band be if you two break up?’ And I was like, ‘It probably won’t. I can’t really see it being a band at all.’”
The annals of pop music are filled with great breakup records but not many reconciliation albums. Sure, “Breaking up is hard to do,” as the song goes, but calling it quits and then getting back together can be much, much harder, and the complex emotional transactions and personal concessions involved—forgiving each other, admitting one’s own fears, learning to live with another person’s faults—aren’t exactly the type of dramatic scenarios that lend themselves to pop songs, even within the self-styled “literary” world of folk music. There’s a reason Shoot Out The Lights, Richard and Linda Thompson’s famous last album as a married couple, wasn’t followed by another record titled Let’s Go Buy Some New Lights Cause We Shot The Old Ones Out. Blood usually stays on the tracks.
This makes The Clearing, the third LP from the Bowerbirds, a thematic rarity, a truly odd bird.
Moore and Beth Tacular began the Bowerbirds together, and their relationship has always been central to the band’s music and public identity: two young people in love, singing beautiful pastoral folk songs, living off the land in a cabin, serving as a gentle sonic reminder that occasionally we should stop and smell the bark. “We do get pigeonholed as this folk activist band,” says Moore from his home in Raleigh, North Carolina. “Not activist even, but like folk, green, hippy band or whatever. And I feel, personally, it’s not as if I don’t believe in all those causes, I just think it’s hard to relate to being called a folk musician now.”
The group released its debut, Hymns For A Dark Horse, in 2007 and soon began work on the follow-up album, Upper Air, writing half of the songs in one session and then going on a three-month tour. Moore and Tacular drifted apart during this time, eventually ending their relationship. “That was really difficult,” says Moore. “To be on the road together and constantly having to make decisions and having to play shows and putting yourself out there. It really took its toll on the relationship.”
The pair wrote the second half of Upper Air upon returning from the tour, which makes it at least half of a breakup record or, perhaps, a record of broken people. “We didn’t really make a big deal of it on [Upper Air] because we were still in that really vulnerable spot where we didn’t want to share that kind of information,” explains Moore. “We actually had to release the album and play that whole album while being broken up for a year, and we didn’t really want to answer questions like that at the time. We were on stage singing breakup songs about our breakup.”
At the midpoint of the song “This Year,” one of the standout tracks off of the new album, Moore sings, “On and on goes the long winter/My eyes now fixed to the stars/We’ve been there before and I’m fairly sure we’ll find a clearing/In the forest of our hearts.” It’s a stirring moment. Moore’s dewey, Terrence Malick-like transcendentalism colliding with the plainspoken truth that, all poetics aside, life sucks and pain is cyclical. Notice that Moore says he’s “fairly sure” they’ll find refuge. There are no guarantees.
It turns out the couple found its clearing. “We moved apart for a while, and then that was really good for our relationship even though it really sucked at the time,” says Moore. “Eventually we started hanging out and dating again without the band happening. I realized all the stress of touring was the main cause of the breakup, and it had a lot less to do with how we felt about each other.”
Though Moore and Tacular were back together, there were still changes to be made within the band. The recording sessions for The Clearing saw Tacular assuming a greater creative role, contributing more vocals and lyrics as the group worked on the new songs at home and later recorded tracks in Wisconsin at Justin Vernon’s April Base studio. “We talked it out, and we just had to let go of some things and allow each other to be who we set out to be in the pinnacle of our dreams,” says Moore. “We had to hold onto our dreams and really allow each other to grow and change in the midst of writing the album. And, I think we—it sounds kind of vague, I guess—I feel like we kind of gave each other more space this time around because we figured out it wouldn’t work if we didn’t.”
That space is felt throughout The Clearing, which is both cavernous and intimate. Given the luxury of time, the arrangements are more adventurous than their previous work, incorporating ominous, swirling post-rock textures that Moore explored in his former band, Ticonderoga. By expanding beyond the group’s original template of accordion, bass drum and loud string guitar, the songs now conjure the same sense of awe elicited by the seas, forests and skies described in the lyrics.
Dead Oceans, the band’s label, recently released a six-minute minidocumentary on the making of The Clearing. In the video Moore and Tacular discuss their breakup and show us around the cabin they’re building—Moore’s hair tucked back in a ponytail, Tacular’s now streaked gray. They look tired.
The two sit on an old couch and take turns speaking to the camera. “We wanted to try to make the album as beautiful as we can and have it contain all the darkness that we have in our minds on a daily basis,” says Tacular, Moore’s arm around her as he gazes off. “The things we’re worried about—our relationship, the state of the world, the environment or our dog that’s on a chain—[we wanted the album to] contain that but also contain all the amazingness and beauty and wonder that we have, and try to make the wonder win.”