Review Summary: Intricately laced dream pop with sensible melodies but even better subtle countermelodies and inflections.
Being subtle is one of the most difficult things to do in music. It takes great production skills, compositional skills, and the mind to know when to use it. Subtlety gives a whole new dimension to music; it gives something to find in the music on the listener’s 10th or 11th time through the album. Generally, there are two sides to the use of subtlety. There are those who use it slightly and even when they do, it isn’t hidden enough to reach its full effect. Most artists fall under this category. Andrew Bird is one of the first to fall under the opposite category. His music on Armchair Apocrypha is almost too subtle. There is so much hidden underneath the main voices, but it is too hidden, too hard to find.
For that reason, on my first few listens of Armchair Apocrypha, I was very disappointed. If it wasn’t an album I really wanted to enjoy, I might have gone and wrote a negative review for the album right there. I gave it one more chance and I really paid attention. At that point, the subtleties came out and realized what an intricate, beautiful album Armchair Apocrypha is. It is a prime example of a grower.
Andrew Bird rode a bit of a hype machine with his last album, The Mysterious Production of Eggs. If there were any time for him to grasp onto some indie fame, now would be the time. Armchair Apocrypha does not expand upon the sound of Eggs. Instead, he goes for a poppier, more electric sound not too far from the land of a cheerier Interpol and Pete Yorn’s latest. Bird’s voice resembles other indie pop swooners like Sondre Lerche and Sufjan Stevens. The slurred style of his vocals might pass the listener by without any recollection, as his voice blends right into the music perfectly. It would be a great travesty to miss his wit and brilliant lyricism. With almost child-like lyrics, Bird gets across messages that some of the greatest lyricists of our time would have trouble conjuring metaphors for. He opens one of the best tracks on the album, Dark Matter
, with this stanza. “When I was just a little boy/I threw away all of my action toys/I became obsessed with Operation.” After something so simple, he spirals out into topics much more philosophical, conveying multiple messages at one time. Musically, the song layers multiple guitars, vocal harmonies, and a simple driving drum beat into one huge sound, like a much more controlled U2. However, instead of staying at this big sound, he brings it down to simple instrumentation and back up again masterfully. Dark Matter
showcases Bird’s new sound perfectly.
Although it is hard to hear on the first few listens, the album does have some variety. Simple X
is an electronica-based song, full with an electronic beat and warm synthesizer melodies. Despite the active drum beat, Simple X
is beautifully tranquil. Still, the most tranquil and beautiful on the album is easily Cataracts
also gives variety to the album, with much more sparse arrangement than the rest of the album. It makes brilliant use of Bird’s oft used whistling. It plays a huge part in this album, finding its way into many songs. The whistling resembles Disney’s version of a songbird, some of the most soulful whistling since Snow White and her songbirds. Aside from Bird’s vocals, the string arrangements take many of the melodies, not just on Cataracts
, but the entire album. Bird uses all the voices that a string ensemble can conjure, from the legato, luscious chords to the pizzicato plucks that give a whole different feel. Still, the instrumentation is not limited to strings and guitars. Piano, banjo, and anything else Bird feels appropriate finds its way onto the album.
Bird’s subtlety is a double-edged sword. It will take some will power to fight through the first few listens to get to where this album is at its best, familiarity. The album gets better and better with each listen. It is nowhere near perfect, though. A full listen through the album, no matter how familiar, is very difficult because one must really pay attention to grasp the greatness of each song. Armchair Apocrypha is better understood through short listens than full listens, although there are no real bad songs on the album. It is not music meant to be played in the background, it is meant to grab your attention and never let go through hook after hook.