Forgive Erin McKeown for struggling through an identity crisis in her early 20s. The Massachusetts-based vocalist/multi-instrumentalist’s first proper long-player, 2000’s Distillation, mixed soulful ballads with saucy ’50s-style jazz and even a spunky, semi-ironic country number. Her 2003 follow-up, Grand, was another mishmash that distinguished itself by introducing flashes of daffy but delightful pop. On her latest, We Will Become Like Birds, McKeown has focused her sound to beautiful effect. Paring back both the pseudo-jazz indulgences and the near-twee whimsy, she’s chosen an elegant new style that seems to be courting a commercial breakthrough. Just check out the album-opening “Aspera”: First, there’s a slow, chiming riff from McKeown’s electric guitar. Then in come the big, deliberate drums and a loping bass line, and an anthem is born. The refrain—“Aspera!/Per aspera!/Per ardua!/Ad astra!”—might sound like showing off from this former Brown University ethnomusicology student, but the verses are as universal as you could hope for. “Walking we are caught, by tiny hooks that hold our hope,” McKeown sings. “Our skin may be scratched, but nothing holds us back.” Similarly, “White City” uses a musical tribute to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair (“city built in Jackson Park/Electric castles and/A promise kept of higher art”)—to set up a little common-sense existentialism: “How beautiful is beauty/When it’s only temporary.” The many successful three-minute pop songs included on Birds are testament to that, but the album’s heavier moments are its best. The lost-love ballad “Float,” with its wrenchingly slow refrain of “Alleluiah!/ Alleluiah,” drops with the emotional weight of an anvil. And the closer, “You Were Right About Everything,” features a crunchy, ragged guitar line suggesting that McKeown knows her Crazy Horse at least as well as her kora masters. Indeed, Birds is so unexpectedly accessible that its songs seem destined for film soundtracks and TV commercials—which may explain the presence of drummer Matt Chamberlain, who’s rhythmically assisted other emotive sirens such as Fiona Apple and Tori Amos. Half a decade from now, McKeown’s pre-Birds identity crisis may well look like her precious years of innocence. But for the moment, the singer is in a golden and unspoiled place. —Michael Crowley
McKeown performs at 7 p.m. Monday, Aug. 1, at the Rams Head Tavern, 33 West Street, Annapolis. For more information, call (410) 268-4545.