Ali Murray: Spectral Birds (2022)

“Spectral Birds” was written, recorded, produced, engineered, and mixed by Ali Murray and mastered by Allister Thompson. Released on November 20th, its 8 track runtime is 29:31.

“Twilight Hill” starts off the album with the sounds of a warm Summer day filled with chirping birds but this quickly dies out as Murray’s guitars come in – one strumming while another carries the melody. In the first verse Murray sings, “Up on twilight hill / A cold November chill / Followed by the ghost / The one I feared the most”. The lyrics themselves are emotionally rich and descriptive, leaving an overall impression of existential distance as though what’s being described is from an age long past. Most of the words are written in the past tense which aids the sense of temporal distance that’s being evoked. It’s a hauntingly beautiful song about what or whom haunts one, as is much of the album – spectral meaning, “a visible incorporeal spirit, especially one of a terrifying nature.”

“Eyes Coated In Frost” is something of a dirge with its slow tempo marked by a sparse drum, quasi-chanting vocals, and a gorgeous but lamenting string arrangement. The third verse and chorus reads, “The empty shore of Sorroden / and the ghostly steps we follow in / The trails that lead through hollowness / emerge into more forgetfulness / Eyes coated in frost cannot see / Eyes coated in frost cannot be”. I couldn’t find anything online about “Sorroden”, which I assumed was a place on the Isle Of Lewis where Murray lives – perhaps there is no such place, but whether Sorroden is or isn’t real, it’s intriguing nonetheless to picture an empty and unknown shore called Sorroden. A shore of sorrow as perhaps the name hints at. It is of note that Murray has a song called “Sorroden” on his 2017 album “Land of Evergone,” which paints a vivider picture of the place.

The seventh track, “The One I Need,” has guest performer Anna Mackenzie on cello, which is so close in tone to the human voice that it adds an emotional heft to the already dark and emotional theme of the song. Murray sings, “I wonder if I’ll ever work it out / There’s a lifetime left to live without / You’re the only one I think about / Are you the one I need?” His voice is full of regret, bordering on despair, and implicitly holds the answer to his wondering – he will never work it out, yet glimmers of hope do shine, or flicker dimly, at the the mention of “the one”. Yet, because it’s a question full of uncertainty, the listener is led to doubt that the one can possibly banish the spectral birds that haunt and plague the narrator. There’s a magical moment starting at 1:22 where another guitar comes in and plays a staccato line for twenty seconds that creates a fragile counter-melody to Murray’s voice and the cello, and because it’s such a higher pitch it allows a powerful evocation to ensue from the contrast. Little details like this reveal Spectral Birds to be a deeply conceived and painstakingly thought-out album.

Ali Murray has outdone himself with Spectral Birds. It’s the perfect Winter album – desolate and haunted but also comforting and mysterious.

You can stream or purchase Spectral Birds by Ali Murray on Bandcamp:

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