Singer-songwriter Gabriel Kahane has all the usual digital tools required to be a musician in 2022. He’s got the social media accounts and the websites and the Bandcamp presence, because without them, you might as well be trying to telegraph your fans. Which makes it all the bolder and more interesting that he spent a year offline, an extended digital detox that resulted in Magnificent Bird, a collection of sweet and intimate songs that have the immediacy of a pencil sketch and the depth of a mural.
While the album seems high-concept, the back story doesn’t impact the final product. The songs thrive because of melody and simple, direct lyrics that feel like snippets of thoughts and conversations but are too well-composed to be observations jotted down in a notebook and sung later.
The best example of Kahane’s talent for turning mundane moments into art is the title track, where he sings about feeling jealous while reading a magazine profile of another songwriter. It’s a simple idea, but Kahane layers the complexity. Musically, there’s a flute hook and a simple beat that doesn’t keep time so much as marks it, like fingers nervously drumming on a table.
Lyrically, he’s brutally honest: “I felt the pangs of pettiness and jealousy swell in my chest / How easy to forget you’re already blessed.” But the vocal melody is so lovely, and so sweeping, made even grander because of the flutes, that you don’t register Kahane’s insecurity about the competing songwriter with the titular bird-like songs. It sometimes feels precious when songwriters try to wrap lyrics of one emotion in music of an opposing one, but here it feels honest, a person confessing to a sin quietly, hoping no one else will hear what they’re saying as they unburden themselves.
Kahane’s vocals are reminiscent of Elvis Costello, with a willingness to let syllables and ideas go as long as they need to, rather than forcing lyrics into a rhythmic cadence. In Kahane’s case, it gives tracks a jazz energy, although the backing instrumentation is so subtle, the sonics can be like a Rorschach test, revealing more about the listener than the music. On “We Are Saints,” Kahane provides a melody that slowly unfurls, with pitches hitting highs and lows. It’s not the type of vocal you’ll sing in the shower, or whistle while you cook, but something more haunting that will bounce around your head as you fall asleep at night.
Magnificent Bird weighs in at just 10 songs, despite Kahane writing nearly twice that many tunes for the album. He was wise to focus on a smaller number, as these tracks are all perfectly refined, with never a note out of place. Kahane gives each track, and the entire album, what it needs to make the song complete and fulfilled. It’s convenient, and mentally healthy, to think that the offline time made this album possible, but the reality is songwriting this precise doesn’t magically happen by leaving Instagram for a year. Kahane’s sense of song is the reason for his own magnificent birds.