Death rarely permeates an album as perfectly as it does Axis Mundi, the sixth and final release from the formidable duo Brown Bird, but artists seldom record while being forced to battle their own mortality. Axis Mundi refers to the elusive point connecting heaven and earth, where communication flows from above and below, and anything suspended on that axis becomes a repository of potential knowledge. With the untimely death of David Lamb, his final recordings with wife MorganEve Swain resonate as closely to that axis as possible.
The story of Brown Bird is inescapably tragic: two musicians met, fell irrevocably in love, and instantly partnered their lives and music. They shared a home and shared the stage around the world, and were well on their way to achieving the notoriety their talent deserves. But Lamb was diagnosed with an aggressive form of leukemia, and died less than a year later in April 2014. This record contains songs written during Lamb’s illness, which Swain finished after his death with the help of her brother Spencer Swain and engineer Seth Manchester. (No one explains the process of the album’s creation better that Swain herself in an open letter: http://brownbird.net/brown-birds-final-album/.)
Lamb confronts his condition unflinchingly with the opening song “Focus.” “Tethered to the cure, I focus on the pain, transformation comes tempered by the flame, and if this flesh should fail, devour me from within, may then my soul prevail, free to roam again.” Minimal guitar, soft strings, and Swain’s light vocals soothe the solid ache of Lamb’s voice and lyrics.
Brown Bird is known for a sound rooted in folk that intricately combines blues, gypsy, and surf. But this album fearlessly departs into darker territory; more than anything, Lamb wanted to “make it rock.” The entire album hums with intensity, from the buzzing amps and fuzzed guitars to the lush strings and heaving percussion. The instrumentation supports the gravity of the narrative, with Swain’s haunting vocals winding through like wisps of smoke. “Raging Squall” and “Smoke Rising” stand out for their driving, gloomy energy and distorted riffs. Lamb and Swain absolutely rock this gorgeous, swollen sound and make it their own. Every element is painfully honest, every bit comes from the gut and soul, and the album remains raw and fierce even in its frailest moments.
The only song written before Lamb’s diagnosis is “Tortured Boy,” which Swain wrote for him when they first met. Her tender words are unsettlingly eerie, considering their inclusion and all that would come to pass: “I don’t want to bathe, I’m afraid I’ll lose your smell…all I want is you, for this waiting to be through… I’ll be standing right here, you’ll have nothing more to fear.” Swain’s strength and grace in completing the album are remarkable, and it’s clear that she became Lamb’s rock. Even more heartbreaking is the hidden song “Avalon,” a gift to Swain from Lamb in which he extols her lovingly: “You’re a huntress, a healer, a holder of hands, and your heart is the Avalon I seek for my end.”
Less capable musicians would have burdened an album like this in depression and despair, but their love burns brightly enough throughout to temper the shadows, scorching any trace of pity. Nothing can diminish the force and beauty of their final collaboration. They intended to spend a lifetime creating together, but with Lamb’s unfortunate passing, Axis Mundi poignantly serves as a devastatingly triumphant swan song.