Album review: Anton Barbeau – Manbird

Album artwork

Words by Gareth Thompson

Anton Barbeau has described Manbird as a “Jungian travelogue of memories, dreams and reflections.” Actually most of Barbeau’s back catalogue would’ve had the Swiss psychologist in bits, given the songwriter’s fondness for symbolism, complexes, quarrels with the subconscious and suchlike. Inspired by the cult film Lady Bird, set in his Sacramento hometown, Barbeau has created a double album that flirts with the rites-of-passage theme and ends up reflecting his own distinct persona. A quick life review this is not. Instead we’re invited further into Barbeau’s phobias and fantasies, via a loose biographical overarch. Musically he’s never really hearkened to those West Coast roots, having adopted a more European psych-pop slant early on. Lyrically his concerns are just whatever concerns him at any given moment. In the Manbird world, everything is open to examination– aviation, avian life forms and the deep question as to whether there’s breakfast on Mars. It’s one literal flight of fancy after another.

The title track opener is vintage Anton, kooky and catchy, with plenty of zip. ‘Across The Drama Pond’ continues the jubilant narrative of leaving home, but thereafter things glide into expansive states of meditation and invention. Indeed, some of the album’s most arresting pieces entirely shun the classic song format. Take the breakneck punk jab of ‘Featherweight’, the galloping mantra ‘Savage Beak’, or the boppy fanfare ‘Flying On The Ground Is Alright’ for just three cases.

Anton Barbeau, photo by Julia Boorinakis Harper

Such experiments shouldn’t imply that Manbird is anything less than approachable. Many tracks are driven by defiant acoustic strums, overlaid with synth twinkles and swirls, bulked out with a steady rhythm section. Barbeau’s music remains mind-expanding, where that of his rivals is so often mind-numbing. And the lusty pangs of his Lennon-like voice convey either angst or comedy, depending on the situation. Yet out of this prankish chaos he creates, each piece emerges with its melody and method intact. It’s just that never before has Barbeau offered such a transcultural aspect to his ruminations. Check out the wyrd warbler ‘Underneath The Mushroom Tree’ which becomes a trance-dance blown in from Marrakech. Then we get ‘Cowboy John’, a surreal singalong that morphs oddly into the ‘Greensleeves’ air. Floaty folky strains abound on ‘Fear Of Flying’ and ‘Chicken’, there’s the stoned jangles of ‘Coming Home’ and a Motorik headrush on ‘Beak’. You’re never sure what cultural plane we’re headed for next.

Ultimately this record is both an intellectual document and a personal catharsis. In conceptual terms it connects to elements of Mikal Cronin’s grandly fuzzy MCIII, Marillion’s dramatic Misplaced Childhood, possibly The Wall too, whilst not forgetting The Lemon Twigs’ wacky Go To School. But in its own right, Manbird is another inspired offering from Barbeau which deserves to feather his nest. He may have funded this project on a wing and a prayer, but it soars with unbroken pride.

Manbird is due for release on September 18, 2020 and is available to pre-order here

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