That is not to say that Birdy (real name Jasmine van den Bogaerde) is any less legitimate an artist because she’s young, nor is to say that her only appeal lies in being precocious. Shirley Temple, she’s not. Girl’s got pipes. If the Childlike Empress from “The Neverending Story” and Dido fused into a single entity, that oddly specific amalgamation would be Birdy.
To indulge in my daily narcissism, the British singer’s self-titled debut makes me feel good about my musical tastes. Sometimes I worry that I’ve grown incapable of liking ballads and downtempo music in general, because on almost every new album every week, the slower stuff is what drags the whole ship down, like a big iceberg of listless sinking otherwise Titanic albums. But Birdy, with not a single danceable track and nary a disco beat to be found, has restored my faith in pretty music.
Because cover songs are wonderful and Birdy’s voice sounds like, well, one of those animals with feathers that’s good at warbling, Birdy is a beautiful success. After going viral with her piano-driven cover of Bon Iver’s “Skinny Love,” it may seem like an easy step to release a similarly styled collection of reinterpretations. It doesn’t matter if it’s an easy step — it’s a good one. Birdy knocks all of these songs out of the park and, for the most part, makes them sound like originals.
“Skinny Love” is included here, and it has all the oomph that brought Birdy to the forefront to begin with. It certainly helps that Justin Vernon built an undeniably gripping tune, but Birdy just flies it to the stratosphere in a new way. “1901” is another personal favorite song, and Birdy relaxes the Phoenix tune without making it lag at all. The young songstress brings a crystalline purity to anything she touches.
“The District Sleeps Alone Tonight” is, for my money, the most inventive repurposing on the album. The bleepy bloopy Postal Service masterpiece (YEAH I SAID IT, COME AT ME) is not known for a powerhouse, bone-shattering vocal performance from Ben Gibbard, but rather for a very striking ambience and a whole lot of synthesized computer noise-ification. At first thought, it would be like putting Julia Child in the kitchen and asking her to make you sushi. She could do it, but it would miss the point. But Birdy takes the challenge and annihilates it through the sheer power of Singing Really Well. She spins the same kind of magic on The Naked and Famous’ “Young Blood.”
Another standout for an entirely different reason is “People Help the People,” a song I was unfamiliar with before this album. When I say Birdy sounds like Adele on this track, I don’t mean she sounds like a Victorian-era chimneysweep raised on Southern gospel. The power and control Birdy’s voice possesses is most evident on this song, which transcends the pleasant lilting present on every other track. Listen to it and think of what Birdy could sound like with when she matures a little bit.
The only original song here, “Without a Word,” was penned by Birdy herself. Sounding like a pint-sized Florence Welch with a modicum of more restraint, the track stands head-to-head with every other on this album, even if it lacks a little edge.
It takes serious charisma and chops to take a voice this delicate and beautiful and not make every song sound like The Phantom of the Opera. But, like a vocal version of the Vitamin String Quartet, Birdy takes indie pop hits and gives them a fascinating, classy sheen. The question is: What can she do with an entire album of original songs?
(2) “Skinny Love”
(3) “People Help the People”
(5) “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight”