Album Review: Meg Baird, ‘Furling’

Whether you know how to play or not, the presence of a piano can make a house feel like home. Meg Baird took piano lessons growing up, but for her the instrument was something “you can just kind of mess around with, really kind of explore sonically without it being a recital or for anything in particular,” she explained in a recent interview. It’s become a way of warding off homesickness, too, and because Baird doesn’t own a piano herself, whenever she gets to house-sit for friends who do, she uses the opportunity to revisit that place. That kind of exploration ended up becoming a throughline on her first solo album in seven years, Furling, whose first and last songs weave around the piano. They give the record a feeling of stretched time, which Baird then navigates in her songs with patience and warmth, but also, when it bends just the right way, a bit of breathless wonder.

On the opening track, ‘Ashes, Ashes’, Baird doesn’t play the piano with much delicacy, applying to it the same rhythmic tenacity that sometimes punctuates her guitar playing. It sounds rather like a ship sailing through the night, which is in line with some of the lyrical motifs that permeate Furling; soft drums and shimmering guitar also anchor the song, while Baird’s wordless vocals seem to swirl in the ether. Working closely with her musical and romantic partner Charlie Saufley (and likely inspired by her recent collaborations with harpist Mary Lattimore, the album’s only outside contributor), Baird allows the inquisitive nature and light touch of the more nebulous songs to seep in elsewhere. ‘Ship Captains’, despite registering as a more conventional folk song, evokes a similarly volatile atmosphere but offers more context, suggesting a reckoning with the past: “Oh sister, did you hear? Ship captains can’t hurt you dear!” (Furling is dedicated in part to Baird’s father, whom she refers to in the liner notes as the Captain.) Towards the end of the album, ‘Will You Follow Me Home?’ channels a classic rock sound but ventures a little outside it, as if more inclined to float around the question mark.

Like the longing that consumes ‘Unnamed Drives’, the experiences in question remain elusive, a quality Baird counters by sometimes embracing more direct language. This has the effect of grounding even tracks like the mesmerizing ‘Star Hill Song‘, with its cosmic imagery and echoes of Mazzy Star, in something human: “Feel the quiet calm down? Feel the beating of another’s heart?” she sings. The stillness these songs allude to, like that of nature, isn’t always soothing; it has a way of stirring things up. She reflects on lost friends in ‘Twelve Questions’, earnestly seeking self-assurance: “Probably could have handled any one of these dark clouds/ But the way they stacked up/ We didn’t stand a chance.” And ‘The Saddest Verses’ is a lovely meditation on the rare moments when art makes you spill more truth than intended, treating it as a gift worth treasuring even if it never sees the light of day.

And yet it’s only a couple of songs later that we get to hear the striking closer, ‘Wreathing Days’, which, in grappling with the darkness of time passing, is as deep and vulnerable as they get. The haunting beauty of the piano and Baird’s vocals is undeniable, but Baird somehow draws attention not just to the prettiness of her voice but its pliability, the breath going in and out. In contrast to the open space of ‘Ashes, Ashes’, the song seems to flow entirely from within. The environment almost feels stifling, which makes you wonder what it says about the homes we live in, and where they might lead us. Yet the turbulence of ‘Ashes, Ashes’ is gone, and there’s light in the dissonance. When Baird stretches her voice, inviting us to “dream away,” it sounds like an unburdening; then it curls back along with the piano, and you see where the roots are.

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