Birds Of Tokyo
Human Design


1.5
very poor

Review

by Mathias CONTRIBUTOR (42 Reviews)
April 24th, 2020 | 52 replies


Release Date: 04/24/2020 | Tracklist

Review Summary: Cliche after cliche after meaningful cliche.

Without a doubt, many of the most successful albums ever released, both critically and commercially, are designed around a specific important moment in an artist’s life. Heartbreak, the birth of a child, death - These are all innately human experiences and are nearly impossible to avoid in life, although the specific feelings associated with them vary on a person by person basis. That is what makes albums dealing with these topics all the more impactful when they succeed in creating both a sense of empathy for the performer and an individual connection for the listener. The difficult part of this process is that almost every album ever recorded is based around some sort of relatable emotion, so albums with these themes are a dime a dozen. To truly stand out with these themes, risks have to be taken, and some level of uniqueness has to be created without going so far as to alienate the base of listeners to the point where they cannot relate. On Human Design, their sixth full length album, Birds of Tokyo attempted to create a deeply personal, yet universal, album. In the process, they managed to include essentially every single cliche in pop music.

It’s hard to criticize an album that was clearly crafted on a personal level. Human Design is an album about three years in the making and is largely inspired by lead singer Ian Kenny’s divorce. It’s clear from the lyrics and interviews leading up to the album that this was a painful and formative experience for Kenny. He tried to be as honest and upfront with the lyrics and his emotions as possible, largely to practice and convince other men to feel more open talking about their emotions in real terms, obviously an admirable message. However, it seems as though Kenny went to a predictive text machine, threw in every pop song about both heartbreak and inspiration from the past twenty years. For opening track “The Greatest Mistakes”, the band took to Twitter to say that “This song is about learning from the mistakes you make, finding out who you are and what you’re made of.” When the chorus to the song is “Time  and again I’d keep on returning/To the greatest mistakes I’ve made/But  I’m learning/This journey it ain’t over for me”, it doesn’t necessarily take a music scholar, much less a tweet, to figure out what the song is about.

And that’s where the biggest challenge to Human Design comes from. The band tried to get intimate in their emotions, but instead just regurgitated what every heartbroken musician says. Following, “The Greatest Mistake”, the next song gives us the gem of “Got your name on my heart/In the shape of a tattoo/It's my favourite piece of art”, with the permanency of tattoos being a favorite platitude of pop music. However, Birds of Tokyo somehow managed to mess this idea up, since a tattoo doesn’t have a shape. A tattoo can be shaped like a heart, sure, or you can tattoo a name, but then the tattoo is shaped like the letters of the name. Maybe Kenny means that the name on the heart is permanent like a tattoo, but again, why use the word shape? Replace the word “Shape” with “Way” and it’s definitely a bad lyric still, but one that makes a little more sense. While this may seem like a rant about an inconsequential lyric, it is also the deepest any analysis of the lyrics can get, as lyrically, Birds of Tokyo managed to make an incredibly impersonal album by being far too generic. The slight exception to this critique is “Addison”, which still has an uninspired chorus with the lyrics “How could you leave me here my friend/Somewhere between alive and dead/I thought we'd make it to the end”, but ends with Don’t leave me Addison, so it’s clearly about someone named Addison, obviously making it deeply personal.

Unfortunately, the lyrics aren’t where the banality ends, as each track on Human Design attempts to fit in at least one of the current trends in pop music. There’s the singalong in “The Greatest Mistakes”, the gospel choir in “Two of Us”, the symphonic acoustic ballad in “Designed”, a synth pop ballad in “When Home Calls”, the banjo in “Addison”, and so on. The most disappointing aspect of all of this is that Birds of Tokyo used to be an incredibly interesting alt-rock band, while Ian Kenny is also the lead singer of prog-rock behemoths Karnivool. They were at their height lyrically, vocally, and instrumentally on their second album Universes, but slowly started moving in a more pop direction as the band gained fame. 2016’s Brace was a step in the right direction, taking on a synth rock style, but with Human Design they gave up on everything that made them stand out in the slightest. Even Kenny’s incredibly strong vocals are neutered, with him really only unleashing in the first three minutes of closer “Never Going Back”, which is the most inspired part of the album. It’s the one moment where you remember that the rest of the talented band exists (there are six members, which is hard to believe at point). But then comes a spoken word verse that contains the phrase, “*** it, c’est la vie", ruining that slight enjoyment that came in the three minutes prior.

This isn’t meant to be an argument of “Birds of Tokyo were better before they sold out and went pop”, as another incredibly frustrating aspect of Human Design is that it contains some very catchy choruses and melodies. This doesn’t seem like a sell-out, cash grab pop album. The effort is there and the album certainly seemed to have personal meaning. Again, it’s difficult to criticize music that is clearly important and cathartic to the person who made it. Ian Kenny has made it known that he is unsure how he would have been able to cope with his divorce if it weren’t for writing Human Design. Cliches stick around because people are able to relate to them, and if writing cliched music and lyrics was an emotional release for Kenny, then the album served its most clear and important purpose. However, when you release your art to the world, even if it serves as quasi-therapy, its purpose is no longer solely to serve as an emotional release on an individual basis. While the message is admirable and the emotions real, that alone, unfortunately, does not make Human Design a good album.




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user ratings (25)
2.3
average

Comments:Add a Comment 
dmathias52
Contributing Reviewer
April 24th 2020


1367 Comments

Album Rating: 1.5

First review as a contributor! Woohoo! No better way to commemorate it than a negative review of an album that drove me crazy

Digging: Ismay - Songs of Sonoma Mountain

JesperL
April 24th 2020


1097 Comments


oh no, it's that bad? sweet review though, tattoo analysis was hilarious. will steer clear of the record lol

MarsKid
Contributing Reviewer
April 24th 2020


11295 Comments


Welcome to the club my man, officially.

Great writing you have here too I liked the way it progressed to different facets of the album and didn't stay focused on lyrics alone, though they do seem like a proper drag. Seems like you cover all the bases here thoroughly. Last paragraph is a great addition as well. Reminds me of Mt. Eerie's A Crow Looked at Me and the discourse around that.

Spiritual pos

Digging: TRVSS - New Distances

dmathias52
Contributing Reviewer
April 24th 2020


1367 Comments

Album Rating: 1.5

Yeah JesperL, it's not great. I would say Two of Us (with the tattoo lyric) is maaaaaybe worth a listen, partially cause it's catchy but mainly to laugh at the lyrics lol

Thanks Mars! I was actually really considering referencing A Crow Looked at Me in the opening paragraph. They couldn't be more different musically, but it's really interesting to see the different executions of the same overall idea. I'm also one of the people who likes a Crow Looked at Me

MarsKid
Contributing Reviewer
April 24th 2020


11295 Comments


Yeah, I didn't like it as much but felt weird rating it to an extent. But by the same token, as you said, when that music is released, it's no longer limited to that personal sphere.

Nocte
Contributing Reviewer
April 24th 2020


12757 Comments


Popping the contrib cherry with a 1,5? Bold move. Respect : ]

WatchItExplode
April 24th 2020


8223 Comments


Oooh, a negative Mathias rev... Will read when I get a chance later.

TheSupernatural
April 24th 2020


2106 Comments


Crazy how bad this sounds after Brace, which wasn't perfect but certainly worth listening to. I previewed the tracks on here and they all sound like discount Imagine Dragons

dmathias52
Contributing Reviewer
April 24th 2020


1367 Comments

Album Rating: 1.5

@Nocte I had a few options I was considering writing about, none of them grabbed me that much, and this grabbed me to write about for all of the wrong reasons lol.

@Supernatural Yeah, it's weird that this is the follow up to Brace. It was a logical step after March Fires, but Brace got me somewhat excited to see them on a new track. This is quite a few steps backwards

Aberf
April 24th 2020


3232 Comments


There are definitely more analyses here compared to my review lol. This gives me an impression of a mere cliched pop album (duh) compared to just an awful one.

Waior
Contributing Reviewer
April 24th 2020


11765 Comments


i do not know this band and i am sad something that you present as heart-on-sleeve-vulnerable is so unpleasant to listen to

reminds of me of a CBC radio interview i remember hearing with john mayer a few years back. he was talking about this incredibly personal song of his on a new record--and talking about how he chose these really deliberate production choices to enhance the intimate lyrics, and took some risks, etc. i was pretty excited to hear the song after this because we all know mayer could do something pretty neat, but then they played the song and it sounded (to me) like any of john mayer's recent adult contemporary tunes. really sugary and clean. for me, not something i like. nope.

what was interesting was realizing, this dude's really proud of this... producers and labels aren't telling him to sound this way, he legit likes this sound. he had the power and he stood behind it. it kind of made me like him more somehow, realizing taste is so key to what we like or dislike

so i may like mayer as a person more but he does things in a way i am not into as a musician/producer

i have no doubt that i would respond the same way to this, some cocktail of respect and disinterest. you certainly don't sell it as very successful in its intent haha! cool to see you process that dichotomy out loud in this review

Dmax28
April 24th 2020


816 Comments

Album Rating: 3.0

Hmm I spun this album a handful of times awhile ago, and while I don't have much desire to return to it, I found it really pleasant and emotionally touching. Maybe it helps that i have never heard any of their other works and had absolutely no expectations. I guess I should hear their better stuff now.

Waior
Contributing Reviewer
April 24th 2020


11765 Comments


I'm a few songs in to see if I can put my money where my mouth is. I hope this album finds its audience, because I know a lot of people who would find it very meaningful.

I'm glad others will like it (outside of Sputnik), so I don't have to. I'm not going to listen to any more, no, thanks Mathias for doing that for us. I don't know how on earth to be objective with music in this style. It feels like it's from another planet.

SitarHero
Contributing Reviewer
April 24th 2020


12041 Comments


Good review! Mind pos. But that bit about the tattoo is a little off base I think. "In the shape of" doesn't necessarily literally mean "shaped like". It's also a figure of speech that means something closer to "in the form of".

Criticising the meaning of the lyric that way is like criticising it because you can't get a tattoo on your actual literal heart without extremely complicated open heart surgery lol.

MiloRuggles
Contributing Reviewer
April 24th 2020


716 Comments


This sounds painful in all the wrong ways. Beautiful, scalding review. Tattoo analysis is gold

JesperL
April 24th 2020


1097 Comments


yeah nvm i do need to hear tattoo song tm, could do with a good laugh haha

dmathias52
Contributing Reviewer
April 24th 2020


1367 Comments

Album Rating: 1.5

@Waior/Dmax, I think you're both completely on point. Like it sets out to do what it was meant to do, and you have to give it credit for that. I read a few interviews about the album before writing this, and the writer seemed super genuine. And I think it's gonna resonate a whole lot with a whole lot of people, and I understand why. Unfortunately for me, just none of that purpose seems to hit. Beauty of objectivity I guess!

@Sitar, Point definitely taken. Honestly when I first started writing about it, I had just written it out as an example of a generic lyrics that lyric I've heard so many times. It wasn't until I wrote it out that I noticed the phrasing was a little weird lol. I agree that it's not really that bad and probably does make sense, I'm just a big lyrics guy and it's closest I could get to trying to do some sort of deeper dive on them lol. Although now I'm wondering why they didn't just use "In the form of"! Still fits the cadence and seems to be a more common phrase. Maybe it's an Australian phrase

And here I go thinking way too hard about that line again

SitarHero
Contributing Reviewer
April 24th 2020


12041 Comments


I supposed "in the shape of" is more evocative and full of imagery than "in the form of". You're right in that it's tired and cliched and doesn't provide any deeper meaning on close examination, but I just don't think it's logically or linguistically inconsistent in quite the way you described.

That being said, the reason it catches my eye was because when I read it for the first time it made me think of someone getting a tattoo on their literal heart muscle, and if that's the image it evokes then it's definitely not doing its job. xD

GhostB1rd
April 24th 2020


6392 Comments


Nice to know he's doing this instead of making that fucking Karnivool album.

joshieboy
April 25th 2020


7540 Comments


I always saw these guys as an inoffensive radio rock band but this one sucks? Shame

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