Birdy – ‘Young Heart’ review: a case of blue, poetic heartbreak

Returning after five years and one big break-up, the English singer-songwriter finds solace in strummed guitars and the Laurel Canyon hills.

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The first cut is the deepest, as Cat Stevens once sang, which might explain why ‘Young Heart’, written after Birdy’s first major break-up, is five years in the making and nearly an hour long.

In early studio sessions, the heartache was so raw she couldn’t get through a single track. The English singer-songwriter turned to the queen of break-up music, Joni Mitchell, and armed with a copy of ‘Blue’, headed to LA. That Laurel Canyon sound, along with a Joni-style tussle between naivety and maturity, is all over ‘Young Heart’.

Her first album since 2016’s ‘Beautiful Lies’, Birdy can afford to take a little time, given her career started at the age of 12. Her international breakthrough came two years later with a cover of Bon Iver’s ‘Skinny Love’, followed by three albums, a London Paralympics performance, film soundtracks, and a Grammy nomination. And she’s still only 24.

No wonder she sounds older than her years on ‘Young Heart’. Sensitive piano-led ballads have always been Birdy’s bread-and-butter, but the new record pares back the production, her voice lightly annotated by keys, strings, and acoustic guitar.

Her vocals carry most of the emotion, swooping from cracked falsetto to low resignation in a way that often recalls Joni, as Birdy moves through the stages of heartbreak. “Last night was the third time I’ve watched you leave / And though it’s been five months, was like no time with me,” she laments on ‘Nobody Knows Me Like You’, and you’re not sure who’s at the window, Birdy or Joni.

Elsewhere, though, the album often lacks the storytelling specifics that define that brand of American song-writing. A reference to the District Line jars because it’s so precise. Unmoored to place or time, ‘Young Heart’ is a wilderness of thunderstorms, shadows, and stars, with a currency of metaphorical rivers and lighthouses, and a language of ambiguous questions: “Can you understand how strange it is to be alive?” “Is the future like the past?”

That cosmic, holler-at-the-moon temperament is heightened by the Florence + The Machine-style vocal tics of ‘Loneliness’ and ‘Deepest Lonely’, both slightly heftier pop tunes. But the strongest songs bookend the album: ‘Voyager’, Birdy’s shuffling slow-dance with herself, and the scribbled strums of ‘New Moon’. They’re the best examples of the textured guitar and diary-writing tone that define the album. Birdy carries off this style faultlessly, but she never drifts from it – just drifts within it.

With sixteen similar tracks, the length ‘Young Heart’ gets lost in its emotion. The sophisticated vocals and production would pack greater punch with a swift edit. Instead, the album’s style – as tender and elegant as it is – soon becomes engulfing. But then again, that’s exactly how the first cut feels: a never-ending wash of deep emotion, that takes a long, long time to wade through.

REVIEW OVERVIEW
Birdy - 'Young Heart'

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