Back in 2011, at the tender age of 15, Jasmine Lucilla Elizabeth Jennifer van den Bogaerde (better known as Birdy, thank goodness) debuted with a self-titled cover album. She took great songs by the likes of Bon Iver and The XX and made them her own, showing that she had both good taste and genuine talent. Her next album, 2013’s Fire Within, was all original and while her own work may not have lived up to her inspiration, it was a surprisingly strong collection for someone so young. That’s also true of her latest, Beautiful Lies.
It’s downright humbling that a girl who isn’t even out of her teens can make an album so musically and lyrically mature. Though Birdy certainly had some help in writing some of the tracks, “Lost It All” and “Take My Heart” are all hers. The former especially sounds like the stripped-down, pretty yet emotional tracks that launched her career. However, the instrumentation here is a bit more dynamic than the usual vocals and piano, with a soft, shushing drum rhythm and some strings to augment her usual heartbreak.
Sadness has always been Birdy’s strongest mode and there’s no shortage of it here. Perhaps the best example is the second track, “Shadow.” The echoing piano melody and the way Birdy travels the scales as she sings are classic elements of her sound and the lyrics are equally strong. “Only you ever make me scared/’cause only you can take me there,” she sings. On anyone else’s lips, those lines would be a lament. But Birdy’s particular brilliance lies in the way she can take a song about tragic codependency and make it sound like the most transcendent feeling in the world.
There’s incredible depth in her voice and she can use it to break your heart over and over again, but she can also make you feel alive. Perhaps the best example is “Keeping Your Head Up,” a catchy, upbeat number that’s been getting some radio play thanks to the even peppier remixed version. While the complex mélange of drums, strings and piano give the song much of its energy, Birdy’s vocals are what really sell it. She sings multiple parts here, and while she’s done so before, the effect in this case is to make you want to sing along. That’s easy to do considering this is some of Birdy’s best lyrical work of the album.
On the surface–both melodically and lyrically–”Keeping Your Head Up” seems like just an uplifting girl power anthem, but Birdy is nothing if not emotionally complex. She’s not giving strength to herself or even some generalized listener, but a specific person. “I’ve been keeping your head up,” she sings and then later, “I won’t let you down,” with a sparser, more downbeat tune. It could read as a solemn reassurance or an ironic juxtaposition depending on who you are. It’s pop with incredible complexity packed into every measure and listening to it, you can’t help but wonder if Birdy might have the popularity of some of her sonically similar contemporaries if she went for a bigger pop sound.
But then again, what is popularity in the face of beauty? Take the album’s final track, “Beautiful Lies.” It’s sad and sleepy, but with such a profound, gentle beauty that it could easily shatter you. The chorus alone is a marvel, switching to a minor key when the rest of the song is in major. Choruses are meant to be exciting, but this is bittersweet. The lyrics only enhance that, as Birdy tries to take comfort in a lie in order to ignore a painful truth. She knows things will eventually take a turn, but for now, she wants to freeze time. It’s a beautiful sentiment that’s unobstructed by over-production. Perhaps Birdy will never achieve the level of success she deserves, but if that means she keeps making this kind of music, maybe that’s not so bad.