Review: The Lost Birds by Christopher Tin

After another successful Kickstarter campaign and a long wait, it’s finally here. The subtitle of Christopher Tin’s fourth major album is An Extinction Elegy, and that becomes very obvious when listening to this album. The previous ones have had different themes, but have generally celebrated humanity in different ways. Even To Shiver The Sky, which described the way flight was used for warfare, ended on a positive note with Russian and American texts talking about the wonders and possibilities of space.

Well, it’s now two years later and Russian can hardly be used in any positive terms ever again. Unlike the previous album, which was nearly finished when Covid struck, The Lost Birds has been entirely created during a time of uncertainty, existential dread and a growing realization that we may all be on our way, if not to extinction, at least a world without many things we have been taking for granted.

For that reason The Lost Birds is both very suitable and very depressing. As the official site states, it’s ”a musical memorial to bird species driven to extinction by humankind”. Gone are the triumphant choirs and booming drums, replaced with somber voices by VOCES8, a vocalist group based in England. In fact, very little of Tin’s typical arrangements remain in this album, and several of the songs are almost entirely a cappella for large sections. VOCES8, unsurprisingly, have beautiful voices, but it makes for a rather similar sound throughout and the result is more like a VOCES8 album that just happens to be composed by Tin.

The album does however begin with ”Flocks a Mile Wide”, a completely orchestral track which was included as a preview on the bonus EP that Tin released with To Shiver The Sky. It has been extended and improved, but is still rather slow. If you expected a ”Baba Yetu” or ”Sogno di Volare” to start off the album, that’s not what you’re getting, but it does set your expectations straight.

The first half of the album feels rather indistinct, with very similar arrangements. The female singers of VOCES8 provide very high, solemn tones, with occasional backing by the deeper male voices. All the songs start slow for a few minutes and then pick up towards the end, but there’s seldom anything to really lift your spirits. The middle of ”Bird Raptures” captures some of that Tin magic when it steps up twice, but ultimately fizzles out a bit.

After a short instrumental intermezzo, the second half of the album provides more variety and excitement. While only some of the songs flow together, there is a feeling of connection, where many themes repeat briefly across the songs. ”There Will Come Soft Rains” is the most powerful track of the album, with a flash of anger rather than just sad acceptance. While it’s still very slow, there is plenty of variation as the song grows, and the instrumental part towards the end is very beautiful.

”All That Could Never Be Said” begins with a male voice and the variation is welcome. It’s short but very sweet, and transitions into ”I Shall Not See The Shadows” which has the most beautiful melody and becomes the centerpiece of the suite. It still keeps with the sad theme, but feels the most hopeful, and I would love a more lively reprise one day. After that, ”In The End” reprises the same theme as ”All That…”, capping off the second half.

The final track, ”Hope Is A Thing With Feathers”, was also on the bonus EP and thus feels disconnected from the previous tracks. It’s also beautiful but, once again, slow and rather sad. The final few notes loop back into ”Flocks a Mile Wide”, just like on the first album, but with these two songs so distinct from the rest of the album, it feels a bit strange. And more strangely, the powerful ”Silver Wing” from the EP didn’t make the final cut for this album, probably because it was much too uplifting and joyful. I would have loved to hear that song improved and refined.

There is certainly beautiful music to be had on The Lost Birds, and listening to the slower parts of ”Waloyo Yamoni” from the second album reminds me that Tin has always had these solemn parts here and there. But I think the theme became too overbearing this time, and it never explodes into the pure joy of that particular movement. Listening to the album is, appropriately, like attending a funeral. It certainly achieves the stated goal of ”a response to the noise of our times; a return to simplicity, clean lines, and the timelessness of hymns and folk melodies”. But that’s not what I would have liked. Christopher Tin’s previous albums made and make me cry of joy. Aside from the beauty of ”I Shall Not See The Shadows”, this mostly gave me a vague feeling of dread and hopelessness.

The full album, as a result, is beautiful but too bleak for my taste. However, on repeat listenings, and with the second half instead contrasted on my Christopher Tin playlist by songs like the triumphant ”Sogno di Volare” and the gorgerous suite of ”Hayom Kadosh”, ”Hamsafar”, ”Sukla-Krsne” and ”Kia Hora Te Marino”, I can appreciate its sadness better.