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.