Review Summary: Bird's yearning subtlety is warm and inviting, and we couldn't hope for anything less.
When I first listened to Andrew Bird's catchy, enigmatic lyrics, I started to think he was just making up words. Tenuousness? Lisboans? Plasticities? It reminded me of Sigur Ros and their made-up Hopelandic language. But a quick dictionary search quickly revealed that most of the words Bird uses are, in fact, actual words---mostly references to ancient societies or obscure scientific categorical naming conventions.The real conundrum in Bird's literary maze, then, is how he uses them; the wordplay is confounding and sometimes devoid of meaning. NPR even did a special article with Bird called "Words As Instruments" where Bird said, "Honestly, I don't really care about the details. It is the sound." Bird's affluent ability to use words for their sounds rather than their meaning is sometimes the demarcating line between whether you love his music or you hate it.
With Break It Yourself
, Bird's newest release this year, he has found a more stable lyrical ground to stand upon. Not to say that his past releases were unstable, but this time around his lyrics tend to be more pointed and definite in the message they're trying to convey. On the opening track, "Desperation Breeds...," Bird sings in front of layers upon layers of plucking strings, "This peculiar incantation / I'm sure you've heard it before / Still, I'm breeding desperation." The lyrical composition flows just as smoothly as it always has, but it's as if he's taken more stock in the power of meaning and not just sound. Rather than plastering pretty words together, he's leaning toward storytelling and concrete imagery. On "Near Death Experience," when he sings, "And we dance like cancer survivors," he's actually painting a very visceral and lasting image, not just employing a simile.
Sonically, Break It Yourself
is filled with the familiar sweeping strings, looping guitars, glockenspiel, and whistling harmonies most fans are already familiar with. Where would Andrew Bird's music be without it? Some may find this formula trite. If you've ever seen him live (like his Basement performances, for example), then you know he does kind of ride on style and near gimmickry; but Bird has always seemed like he's striving for something deeper than style and style alone. And although there shouldn't really be anything wrong with lavishing and embellishing on simple formulas, this new album takes a much subtler approach than his last couple releases.
For a while, Bird had grown accustomed to straight-forward indie rock songs. Songs like "Dark Matter" and "Oh No" could have easily come from the best of bands like Arcade Fire. On the new album, though, Bird leans more to the folk side of his musicianship. The softer, more subdued the swell of the strings, the better. And although "Eyeoneye," the leading single, is the most basic indie rock track on the album, it's immediately followed by "Lazy Projector," a song that takes a quick turn for the album as a whole. Faded vocals and ambient strings open up the song much more akin to Bird's Mysterious Production of Eggs
than Armchair Apocrypha
. Bird most likely took to this subtler folk tone since the entire record was recorded at his family-owned barn. You can almost feel the isolationism of tracks like "Sifters" as the echoes of Bird's vocals seem to bounce off open fields and ranges.
Through this old barn aesthetic, Break It Yourself
often touches on themes of memory and nostalgia. "Lusitania," featuring a beautiful call-and-response bit from Annie Clark of St. Vincent, has the line: "We don't study this war no more," and on "Sifters" after Bird's voice crescendos in a question of "what if," he says to some unknown subject, "But I still miss you / Oh, would you then have been mine?" But there's no real note of despair or hopelessness in his voice. Regardless of what his past holds, Bird doesn't sound like he's given up on the future, rather, he's simply remembering to reflect on the past.
Compared to Bird's last release, Noble Beast
, this album is a much more succinct and clearer attempt at what he was trying to do from the start: garner subtlety and create a truly round, bubbling album. Where Beast
tended to meander at times, Break It Yourself
gives it to you in one take. "Hole in the Ocean" is probably the most beautiful track on this album, and it does everything that the B-sides of Noble Beast
were aiming for. Bird's spiraling voice over elongated loops of violins feels like the kind of music he was always meant to make. And on Break It Yourself
, it fits better than ever before. Whether he's alluding to Greek Cypriots, analyzing the process of plasticity, or longing for simpler days gone by, Bird is continually shaping the world around him as he sees fit. And sometimes, that's what we need in our music and lyrics---someone to look at our world from a slightly different angle.