Album Title: Birds of Pray
Running Time: 44m 25s
Track listing: 1 Heaven; 2 She; 3 The Sanctity of Dreams; 4 Run Away; 5 Life Marches On; 6 Like I Do; 7 Sweet Release; 8 Every Time I See Your Face; 9 Lighthouse; 10 River Town; 11 Out to Dry; 12 Bring the People Together; 13 What Are We Fighting For?
After a difficult two-year period, Live have returned with the aim of re-establishing themselves in the rock mainstream. The gutsy “V” was a commercial failure and their sixth full-length release, “Birds of Pray”, has become a key release for the Pennsylvanian foursome. And if we judged a book by it’s cover (which you could have done with the gritty cover art for “V”), then “Birds of Pray” cries serenity, perhaps maturity. And if the cover suggests it, then the music confirms it.
The gentle opening chords of lead single ‘Heaven’ are a clear indication that the band have returned to their more classic sound. A plea to the people, lead singer Ed Kowalczyk suggests that it’s time to reclaim our spirituality – ‘You don’t need no friends/get back your faith again/you have the power to believe’. Inspired by the birth of his daughter (‘I don’t need no one to tell me about heaven/I look at my daughter and I believe’), ‘Heaven’ is a cracking tune – and indeed the track, which has laboured in the lower reaches of the chart for six months, has finally made a breakthrough into the Billboard top 100.
While ‘Heaven’ does rock, there’s a grittier edge to ‘She’. Paying homage to a possible femme fatale (‘bring back that hair-down/unguarded mystery’), the powerful chorus of ‘she sets my soul free/now every word she speaks to me is pure gold’ is terrifically catchy and possible single material. It fares better than the promising but ultimately disappointing ‘The Sanctity of Dreams’. An irritating sing-a-long chorus and patchy lyrics counter a killer riff. How do you go from ‘Paint a moustache on the Mona Lisa’ and ‘Pick up a pen and fight a war for the right to dream’ to ‘No more hidin’ in the house of the dead/I think I’ll grow some dreads’?
But the disappointment doesn’t last long. ‘Life Marches On’ is a throbbing, feel-good number that exudes the virtues of country life over a city dwelling – ‘what’s the use of being so high up/when it’s only going to bleed you dry?’, Ed asks quite sensibly. The mid-section tone and tempo-change is perfectly judged and once again you find yourself thinking that this baby could be a single.
‘Like I Do’ is moodier, with a heavier bass line and rawer vocal edge, but doesn’t cover much ground lyrically. Expressing love for a woman (‘I feel like a god when I am next to you/Somethin’ sacred, someone straight and true/Tell me do you feel the same way too?’), the message is simply rehashed throughout the track, only becoming a little more interesting during the robust chorus.
‘Every Time I See Your Face’ is acoustic pop-rock that would sound more at home with Robbie Williams or one of the braver Pop Idols. Like on 1999s “The Distance to Here”, Ed goes a little overboard on the lyrics. ‘Every time I see your face/it’s like heaven opens up her gates/and I fall behind, I just close my eyes’, is far too generic a lyric to be interesting. It then gets a bit pompous and silly: ‘If the quicksand of love and deception/finds a way to come between you and me/don’t fret, I’m gonna cut through the darkness and set us free’.
And while ‘Lighthouse’ is made of sterner stuff, it still fails to really rouse. The harmonies and reasonably catch chorus are welcome, but ultimately this rocker is left foundering on the middle ground. ‘River Town’ and ‘Out to Dry’ fall into the same category. In a direction that sums up half the record, earnest leanings are tempered by a sense of mediocrity. Never an easy band to interpret, it seems that the lyrical vagueness is now becoming a weak link. In ‘Out to Dry’, Ed sings ‘These things that sustain me/Oh how they drain me/I’ll never hang you out to dry’. What’s that supposed to mean? The guitars are strumming and the controlled aggression is there…but the song is…boring.
But I don’t want to give the impression that this album totally misses the mark. ‘Sweet Release’ is the sort of song I’ve been waiting for. Provocative and uplifting it is one of the few moments where a track reaches the heights of ‘I Alone’ or ‘The Dolphins Cry’. Tried and tested formula it might be, but the bars that lead from the gentle verse to the stirring chorus remind you why you are a Live fan. A true classic.
Energetic and frantic, ‘Bring the People Together’ is a war-cry to the masses. ‘It’s a crime, this dark time/We wait for presidents that never turn the tide’, Ed muses, explaining that it is ‘for the sake of these children we leave behind’. Great band performance, especially from Chad Gracey on stick duty.
And changing the pace one-eighty is the album closer, ‘What Are We Fighting For?’. An obvious reflection of world events over the previous two years, this powerful, electric-tinged ballad could make a huge impact on the charts. With lyrics like ‘Oil and blood on the bayonet’ and ‘The world got smaller but the bombs got bigger/Holocaust on a hairpin trigger’, a video clip featuring Mister Bush, Blair, Sharon and Arafat, would create an unforgettable, oft-repeated legacy for MTV.
‘Run Away’, a single in Holland, is the weakest song on the album. A departure for the band in that it features no electrics at all, it winds up a tired-sounding ballad whose only note-worthy moments are derived from Ed’s always-interesting falsetto vocal.
While I’ve been critical of a handful of songs on “Birds of Pray”, there is still enough material here to make this a worthwhile acquisition. It’s true that Live have set very high standards for themselves since 1994s “Throwing Copper”, and negative comments are normally a result of them falling short of these musical blueprints.