Jade Bird is hardly the first Brit to be smitten with America, but the 21-year-old singer-songwriter has her own agenda. As a teenager in Wales, she taught herself to play her grandmother’s guitar and found herself drawn to classic Americana storytellers, from Dolly Parton to indie-folk duo the Civil Wars. Near the end of her tutelage at the legendary BRIT School, she holed up in a pal’s bathroom to record a demo tape, which landed her a management deal and recording session with the Felice Brothers’ Simone Felice, producer for the Lumineers and Bat for Lashes. Bird emerged from the studio with an EP, 2017’s Something American, asserting herself as a confident young voice of country-charred rock. While she may not yet be a household name in the States, her 2018 single “Lottery” reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Adult Alternative Songs chart.
Jade Bird, her self-titled debut, fortifies that early promise. Again recorded with Felice, the album’s 12 tracks are all written by Bird and flit easily between country, folk, pop, rock, and blues. As Bird’s star has grown, she has made an admirably pointed effort to maintain authority on her musical identity. “I don’t want a middle-aged white man telling me how to write my feelings,” she told The Guardian. “It’s not gonna work for me.” As such, her songwriting often centers on a personal quest for clarity in the face of heartache. “And I mean it when I say that/I’m not sure who I am,” she tells a lover on opening number “Ruins.”
When Bird reveals that existential unease, she also divulges Jade Bird’s greatest asset: her gigantic and gravelly voice. She has named powerhouse singers like Patti Smith and Alanis Morissette as influences, but one might hear hints of Hop Along’s Frances Quinlan, whose prodigious rasp can wring epiphanies from single words. Bird busts out her pipes in anthemic bursts, as on “Lottery.” Opening with cutesy wordplay over a jaunty guitar, the song blooms into a guttural declaration of passion. Though the chorus metaphor is sophomoric (“Love is a game but/You got your numbers and you’re betting on me”), Bird sells it with infectious, playful vigor. The rollicking “I Get No Joy” follows a similar pattern, verses sailing by smoothly before Bird pulls the ripcord for the chorus.
Some of these big numbers, however, rely on cheesy tropes that lack a degree of empathy. On “Good at It,” a twangy appeal to a cheating lover, Bird wryly pits herself against a “goddess” of a rival. But she never quite reaches the desperation of “Jolene” or the venomous rage of “Before He Cheats,” instead lingering in an ambiguous middle ground. Barnburner “Uh Huh” does a better job at evoking other-woman cattiness, injecting Courtney Barnett cheek into Miranda Lambert fierceness (“Talk about the guys at work so you feel ego central/Like fancy cars and football teams is she, like, continental?”). The country-fried “Going Gone” relies on a hokey count-off refrain, and when Bird goes in for the kiss-off, it’s half-baked: “Acting big and talking shit, get over yourself… But I hate to inform you’re still living in your mother’s house.” After the overflowing confidence of “Lottery” and “Love Has All Been Done Before,” the two-dimensonality of her character on “Good at It” and “Going Gone” comes as a letdown.
That’s not to say that Bird isn’t powerful in more vulnerable moments. “Does Anybody Know” floats by on a barely-there guitar strum as she likens the loneliness of an unfamiliar city to romantic disconnect. On the melancholic “17,” she pleads with a lover for forgiveness, voice crumbling as she reveals that her tough exterior was merely a defense mechanism. “I have walls that have stood before you ever loved me,” she belts, spiraling into heartbreak. It’s a monumental moment that demonstrates the emotional depths Bird can plumb when she permits herself. In a sea of songwriters overshadowed by overshot production and forced authenticity, Bird stands out as a self-assured voice.
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