Last week in California, the skies turned orange, a sight that seemed taken straight out of everybody’s post-apocalyptic nightmare. Except for it wasn’t a nightmare, but a reality: a harrowing reminder of the wildfires raging across the West Coast. The scariest thing is that these disastrous headlines seem to be becoming less and less surprising; it’s pretty obvious that we’re reaching a defining moment in our relationship with a changing climate.
Emily Barker tackles this environmental quandary in her latest track, “Where Have The Sparrows Gone?”. The UK-based artist is known for her keen awareness of the world around her, and in her latest full-length release, A Dark Murmuration of Words, she begins her search by looking within, then spreading her sights outwards to ponder the observations she makes of the world. Her intuition is apparent, especially in this track, which Barker sets in an apocalyptic future London.
Immediately, Barker creates the image of a synthetic world, setting the pace early on with electronic percussion and synth chords. This world seems totally devoid of life, that is until Barker’s voice enters to sing about gas masks and now-extinct forests. Her vocals are gentle, yet harbor a sense of brimming anger. “Though we told them years ago / They didn’t listen to us shout,” she rues. But she doesn’t just sit and let her anger simmer. Instead, she turns to address lost companions. “Where have the sparrows gone?” she wonders aloud.
Though it relies on synths, the song has starkly folk foundations. Barker sings mournfully over unhurried acoustic guitar tunes that conjure images of rugged country vistas, a moving musical choice that contrasts the bleak, barren world Barker describes through exquisitely barbed lyrics. “Wild fire, wild weather / The prophecies came true / We read about them years ago / No one to blame but me and you.”
The more Barker asks, “Where have the sparrows gone?” the more desperate she seems, repeating the line over and over until you wonder if she’s still asking a genuine question out of curiosity or if she’s just repeating a mantra to keep herself from collapsing. “They’re where the woods were once,” she finally answers: they’re gone. It’s a troubling sentiment, but the poised melody makes it seem like Barker doesn’t want you to fret. Maybe it’s for the best—without the woods, the sparrows don’t really belong. Maybe she doesn’t belong anymore either, she leaves you to wonder as her voice fades away.
“Where Have The Sparrows Gone?” is a gorgeous track that pairs Emily Barker’s sharp awareness with assured instrumentation and fresh production (Barker enlisted producer Greg Freeman with this album, whose notable previous collaborations include Amy Winehouse). Even though the lyrics are set in an alternate universe, the core message rings true for our world—and it makes this song that much more haunting.