posted: February 28, 2012
Onstage, Andrew Bird is the musical equivalent of a magician that keeps audiences second-guessing the tricks of the trade. Bird conjures notes to seemingly appear from nowhere, juggles multiple loops, remembers the orders in which passages get stitched together, and plays with a casual looseness that gives no whiff of the complexities associated with the tasks. The only time Bird displays any sense of fear is when he addresses the crowd. For all of his cultured prose and etymological vocabulary—to say nothing of his fearlessness of premiering in-the-works pieces before large audiences—he’s a shy performer that prefers to communicate via song.
The modest approach—and Bird’s singular style of balancing singing, violin playing, whistling, looping, and guitar playing into sophisticated folk-derived music—serves the Chicago native well. He’s not mainstream. But in selling out theaters across the country and attracting audiences of all stripes, Bird sits atop a commercially successful and critically respected perch most indie artists would envy. Many female listeners swoon at the mention of his name; male counterparts admire his cool; nearly everybody stands enraptured by his classically influenced mélange of conversational pop, early jazz, gypsy swing, and traditional bossa nova.
Entering his second decade of making records under the solo banner, Bird captures on the enthralling Break It Yourself the equilibrium between bold eclecticism and cohesive melodicism flirted with on 2007’s Armchair Apocrypha and abandoned on 2009’s rather plain Noble Beast. The improvement might owe to trial-and-error development. Several tunes here date back to at least 2010, when Bird first tested them in concert. With rare exception, the new songs intersect with intrepid wit, flittering harmonies, and romantic tissues. Better still, they are resoundingly human and incredibly aligned.
Unlike previous Bird efforts that, in spire of their virtuosity or catchiness, often sprawl or utilize quirkiness as a defense mechanism, Break It Yourself retains both a concision and emotionalism essential to the music functioning as fully developed songs rather than intriguing showpieces. Bird’s multi-instrumental hallmarks—nimble arpeggios, pizzicato plucking, tapped xylophone lines, fluttering violin rejoinders, tip-toeing string passages—and whip-smart lyrical rejoinders have seldom sounded so through-composed. Pensive flourishes, impeccable timing, and jaunty accompaniment, too, contribute to the accessibility and adventurousness. So does the fact that the largely relaxed material is recorded live, with scant overdubs, in Bird’s barn. Unforced and inviting, the band’s output ripples with organic textures and natural reverb.
Primarily consumed with heartbreak and loneliness, and approaching such themes from freshly original metaphorical and philosophical viewpoints, Bird revels in pairing introspective questions and rhyming couplets amidst contemporary jigs, sweeping waltzes, and country shuffles. A falsetto lilt and gorgeous finish lift “Desperation Breeds…” out of an initial fog. The playful hypnotism of “Give It Away” rises and falls against a stilt-walking bass line. Slight trembling and turbulence frame a brief psychedelic episode during “Eyeoneye,” underscored with rock urgency and responsive background vocals.
Bird’s command of textures and pacing cannot be overstated. He tangos on “Orpheo Looks Back” while charming with a delicacy usually associated with a professional glass blower. “Dance Caribe” gets away with a calypso beat and breaks out into a clog-heel-kicking hoedown. Gentle percussive crashes and vocal ache color “Lusitania,” the accents serving as symbols for a ship smashing into the shore.
Disaster, despair, dissonance: Bird still hasn’t found the answers to many of life’s bigger mysteries, but in finding joy in altering perceptions and defeating conventions, he’s never been so convincing.–Bob Gendron