Avian Coup: Nest outdoes its predecessor.
Avian Coup: Nest outdoes its predecessor.

A smart, grown-up, no-nonsense singer/songwriter like Meredith Bragg can safely be ignored, right? He’s not going to hole up alone in a log cabin for endless months just to write a record. His wife and baby daughter might have something to say about that. He’s got no public record of engaging in either of the two most useful PR tools: self-destruction and sociopathy. The edgiest thing about him might be his day job at the libertarian mag Reason, where he produces upbeat, but wonky, videos. Ho hum.

And then he drops an eminently pleasurable record like Nest, and it’s time to ponder whether the Alexandria resident is a Serious Artist. The album’s predecessor, 2007’s Silver Sonya, was really nice, but it had a surplus of acoustic-guitar pensiveness. Easy come, easy go. On that record, producer Chad Clark did find multiple ways to expand Bragg’s palette, but compared to Nest, it sounds elementary. Clark outdoes himself here, for sure—the sonics deserve better headphones than most of us can afford, but it’s not a fussy atmosphere, either. Beyond all that, however, Bragg’s songwriting remains the center of gravity.

His words demand mental involvement, and they reward any level of focus. He references concrete things—birds, dogs, seasons, people, architecture—but the lyrics almost always shift toward the abstract. He carefully lays out impressions and interactions, but he avoids deliberate scene descriptions and plot points. Everything is familiar and genuine, but not much is obvious. And his singing, always a little nasal, is more cool and controlled than ever.

“We are tinder, begging for a fire/We are anchors trying to get higher,” he sings with melodic confidence during “Civilians,” which is surely about a romance. But as his acoustic-guitar strumming fills up the innerspace, the song implies question after question: How old is this couple? Is he exaggerating? What’s really at stake here? Ditto for “One True Love,” where the six-strings are electric and the rhythm eventually takes off. “Baby you are the one true love,” Bragg repeats several times, as if it’s a sentiment that needs to be challenged. Is it about success or failure? Even “Next Time,” with its lost-love theme, is also curiously icy: The narrator isn’t necessarily sad—he’s rethinking his tactics. Things get like that sometimes.

When the music is bigger or broader, Bragg tends to be more philosophical or allegorical: “Second Golden Age” opens the album with a krautrock beat, synthesizer flourishes, and a series of echoey invocations: “Take a minute to check that we’re alive,” he deadpans, later referring to some ghosts who “missed it all.” It’s perfectly dramatic. The single “Birds of North America”—with its exquisite vocal overdubs, splashy drumbeats, and cello accents—asks the listener to think about targets and victims (but not necessarily birds). And the other avian song, the full-frame electro-folk “Arrowstork,” uses the idea of the Pfeilstorch (look it up) to frame a monologue about personal absence.

If there’s anything to second-guess about Nest, it’s the way that Clark and Bragg occasionally deploy their sonic doodads, primarily in the architecture-themed songs. But there’s usually a specific logic to it, anyway: The staticky beat that punctuates the weirdly ethereal “Point, Line, and Plane” is almost disruptive, but maybe that’s the point? And the off-time, proto-mechanical knocking that underpins “The Last Hours of Brunelleschi” is probably a reference to the theatrical machines that the Florentine genius was known for. If nothing else is real, the noise is.

So, yeah, Nest is ultimately a thinking-person’s record—but not at the risk of alienating anybody who might stumble across one of these songs while looking for something sensitive and folksy. It works precisely because of the tension between its overt listenability and Bragg’s sneakily unsettling storytelling. It’s normal—and it’s serious.