The “Nous” Church of Birch

dianebirch_nousEschatology is a word I learned from a poem by Denise Levertov (1923-97); it is, she explains in “Seeing for a Moment,” “the study of Last Things.” The piece features neither florid imagery nor artful rhymes, just stark ideas, exploring in a mere 83 words the dichotomies of life – expectation vs. disappointment, fear vs. faith – and how, at a certain stage (and age), the Last Things evolve into the First Things. We no longer focus on the end and, instead, contemplate the beginning—our beginnings. Thus, when facing her older self in the mirror, “word after word/floats through the glass./Towards me.”

The First Things, in this context, include the poem’s opening lines:

“I thought I was growing wings—
it was a cocoon.”

We expect life, when young, to unfold much like school: first grade leads to second leads to third, and on down the line until, one late-spring day, we’re tossing our caps in the air at high-school graduation. But life – for most, at any rate – doesn’t unfurl like the step-by-step directions proffered by Google or Apple maps. Detours and wrong turns are inevitable. We stride forward, stumble, tumble backwards and regroup, and head out yet again.

It’s the grist of life, of art and song. Everything doesn’t snap into place like the DIY furniture purchased from Ikea, though the idea that it should, well, that lingers in the back of one’s mind, always.

Diane Birch’s new EP, Nous, documents dreams, disappointments, disillusionment, faith and acceptance, and an awareness not spoken that, indeed, the Last Things are the First Things. My brief review on Monday captures the set’s overall feel, I think. It’s atmospheric, restrained and moody, accented by muted vocals and figurative wisps of smoke swirling from speakers. The music smolders, in other words, and conjures an assortment of current and classic recordings – from Anna Calvi and Bat for Lashes to David Bowie and Pink Floyd – while retaining its own unique sound.

I mention those references for a reason: Sonically speaking, Nous is light years away from the retro-pop and R&B of Bible Belt, her delightful 2009 debut, and Speak a Little Louder, her adventurous 2013 followup, though it explores many of the same basic themes.

The opening “Hymn for Hypatia,” as I said Monday, conjures the pews and stained glass of church. It feeds into the evocative “How Long,” which is ostensibly about yearning for commitment from a would-be partner but, following the opening hymn, also doubles as a question to a Higher Power. “King of Queens,” the next song, is about the New York Mets, who last won the World Series in 1986, but is, I think, about something deeper, as well. It, too, yearns – but for the glory days of yore, not love.

“Interlude” – a short piano piece that revisits and foreshadows the album’s melodic themes – follows; and then the spellbinding “Stand Under My Love” kicks in: “Hand on my heart/when the future falls apart/and the fire won’t burn/and the wheels won’t turn/when there’s not another road/we will bear the heavy load together.” I posted this same video on Monday, but it’s well worth a second (and third) look:

“Walk on Water” muses on love and faith (“Take a step out/love’s an ocean/we can walk on water”), and is accented by the musings of Diane’s boyfriend’s father, whose insights sound like those of a (Brooklyn) preacher recorded from a staticky radio sometime during the Depression. It’s a surreal, swirling song that features a soulful saxophone blowing in from the distance like a long-suppressed memory bubbling up from the subconscious.

That soulful saxophone (played by Stuart Matthewman of Sade’s band) returns on the set’s closing song, “Woman,” which Diane said on Twitter is “an ode to the divine feminine.” It may be that, but it’s also the atmospheric summation of the EP as a whole. If Denise Levertov had made music, it would have sounded like this.

(The EP is available via Diane Birch’s Bandcamp page.)

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