If you ever listen to any of my Aussie playlists, chances are “Plans” by Birds of Tokyo will be there. It’s not very objective, I know, but I love this song and it’s been my go-to music lifeline in many decisive and/or difficult moments in recent years.
Every time Birds of Tokyo drop a new album, I’m dying to see if any of the new tunes will dethrone “Plans” for me. So when the band started sharing new music in the second half of 2018, I was literally on the edge of my seat. But after listening to Human Design, released on 24 April 2020, my relationship with the band… got a little more complicated.
PART 36 OF “AM I EVER GONNA SEE YOUR FACE AGAIN?” A RANDOM COLLECTION OF UNKNOWINGLY OBVIOUS FACTS ABOUT AUSTRALIAN MUSIC SCENE
It was quite a long wait for the Birds of Tokyo fans since the previous album, Brace, came out in 2016.
The band released a new single, “Unbreakable”, already in September 2018, but they weren’t performing much until the beginning of the following year. That’s when I saw them play in the (quite literally!) melting summer heat during one of the Australian Open Live Stage events. They shared another new song (“Good Lord”) at that gig. And that’s when I got the impression that Birds of Tokyo were somehow starting a new chapter in their career.
“The Greatest Mistakes” that followed in August 2019 and “Two of Us” from January 2020 proved my assumptions right. And even if you don’t follow Birds of Tokyo that closely, judging by the titles of the four (then) released singles, one thing became quite apparent. Someone in the band must have been dealing with some sort of emotional trauma when they were writing the record. And that someone was Ian Kenny, Birds of Tokyo’s singer.
In 2014 Coldplay released Ghost, an album that – let’s put it diplomatically – they won’t be remembered by. But it was a necessary step for the band, and especially its frontman, to cope with the emotions that defined Chris Martin’s life and Coldplay’s music legacy at that point in time (the singer’s separation from Gwyneth Paltrow). It all worked out in the end, despite the record being a much darker and – frankly – quite unusual Coldplay product. This is where Birds of Tokyo are today.
My first thought after listening to Human Design in full was: “How bold – Kenny is publicly processing his private issues (his marriage breakdown) on most tracks on the album”. The singer himself admitted on the band’s page: “>Human Design< is an in-depth look into three years of life, loss, love and change. Ultimately it’s become a kind of diary or journal for a lot I had to live through and learn from.” That’s why the record is primarily filled with feelings of melancholy, sadness and regret, illustrated by softer sounds in the form of ballads. But there’s also the “lessons learned” and “looking into the future with hope” bit that is the absolute highlight for me.
The album starts with the most “interactive” track on the album. I can already picture festival punters screaming their lungs out to “The Greatest Mistakes”, eagerly chanting the “I must be f**king insane” line. It’s an easy-to-follow, bitter-sweet tune that pretty much everybody can relate to whilst sipping a beer in the pub.
And then, suddenly, you’re in for a big surprise because a long streak of proper heartache songs begins.
Not everything is predictable or mundane about those slower tracks, though. “Two of Us” has a cool gospel choir. “Good Lord” and “When Home Calls” are very personal, honest confessions that I’m not sure I’d have the guts to share with the world myself. The story in “Designed” is beautifully told through the combination of strings and the piano. And it truly breaks my heart when Kenny sings: “Borrowed lines from other guys / To make me sound good / Terrified to be myself / When I know that I should”. I might have also shed a tear (or two) listening to “My Darling My Son” because there’s nothing purer and more touching in the whole world than parental love.
“Dive”, on the other hand, took me by surprise. It’s the fifth single and the first little beacon of hope in the otherwise hurting narrative of the album. Things start looking slightly more positive when Kenny declares: “Yeah, I know that you did all you can / Yeah, I know that you truly tried / There is hope for you my friend / I will be there to the end.” Plus, the chanting at the end of the track really brings it home for me.
The mood changes drastically as well with the first beats of “Unbreakable”. This optimistic, uptempo track with motivational lyrics and a sing-along part is bound to lift spirits. Surely, that’s why it became the theme song for the Invictus Games in 2018.
The real treat comes at the very end, though. And not because it’s the last song on the album. It’s because “Never Going Back” finally shows Birds of Tokyo as the loud, unapologetic, alternative rock band that we’ve all come to know and love. With skilfully built-up momentum, layered guitars, fast drums and a big finish, it delivers a strong and on-point message. A message that is the best summary of the whole record, announced by Kenny himself through a megaphone: “So there it is / The beauty and the bullshit / A slow crawl out of hell / Through mud, blood and tears / I’ve earned every stripe / Every stitch and bruise / Yeah I got regrets / And plenty of things I’d change / Well f**k it, Ce La Vie / It’s all part of the mix.” It is hands down the most “Birds of Tokyo” song on the album and a proper banger to wrap up the record with.
Musically and lyrically speaking, this album is everything we’re used to. Glenn Sarangapany’s melodic piano/keys truly enhance the record’s overall nostalgic vibe this time, though (i.e. on “Dive” or “When Home Calls”). Kenny uses his vocal abilities to the fullest as well. And they shine through whether he is a vulnerable storyteller (on “Designed“), an entertainer (on “The Greatest Mistakes”) or a proper rock powerhouse (on “Never Going Back”). My weakness is bass, though, so a big shout-out to Ian Berney for making it sound awesome again (especially on “Good Lord” and “Photo by the Lake”).
It was the right move to incorporate orchestra and a wide range of more lyrical instruments on such a personal album, too. The way the violin illustrates pain in “Photo by the Lake” couldn’t have been achieved with any other sound. And the banjo on “Addison” somehow makes the desperate plea: “I thought we’d make it to the end / Don’t leave me Addison” a little more bearable.
Over 16 years, Birds of Tokyo have gone through different stages and music styles in their journey. If you’re looking for that rock factor they’re normally associated with, you might have to settle for something in-between on Human Design. The band definitely sound much more “pop” than before. I expected more of “Empire”, “Mercy Arms” or “Broken Bones”. I wanted it louder, faster and heavier. Instead, I got more of “Lanterns” and “I’d Go With You Anywhere”. And it’s true that they haven’t really escaped the clichés of writing teary love songs. But it all makes perfect sense if you put this record in context.
“There was never any desire or design to write a full record in the beginning”, Kenny stated additionally on the band’s page. And it does feel like it’s not necessarily a coherent, single piece of artwork. That’s why the album’s title, Human Design, is so fitting in this case. After all, it’s not about being perfect in relationships; it’s about being real.
There’s definitely something much deeper, more mature and authentic about this album. Something that will forever document the challenging moments in Kenny’s personal life that influenced the band’s overall music direction on Human Design. It is reflected in both the singer’s poignant lyrics and the fact that the band stood firmly behind him in that difficult healing process, expressed through music. As Coldplay did for Chris Martin when they released Ghost.
The most honest way to review Birds of Tokyo’s sixth studio album is with the lyrics of its opening track: “It doesn’t always go to plan” but “this journey, it ain’t over for me”. And whilst this might not be my favourite record of theirs and none of the songs has dethroned my fave “Plans”, I have nothing but great respect for the band for sharing such a personal and intimate glimpse into their lives.
A piece of advice I’d offer when you’re making up your mind about this record is: listen to it again. And again. Put your headphones on and try to empathetically embrace where it all came from – we’ve all been there at least once in our lives.
Some albums grow on you in time. I bet I’ll be singing out loud every word to every song from Human Design when I see Birds of Tokyo live again. And I’m truly glad Ian Kenny is already “on the other side of this record” as well.
Birds of Tokyo
Birds of Tokyo / Eleven: A Music Company / EMI Music
Released: 24 April 2020