Andrew Bird‘s whistling, violin-string-plucking novelty wore off at least five years ago. Yet somehow, since his solo career began with 2003’s Weather Systems, following two releases as Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire, he hasn’t quite allowed his sound to grow completely stale. Bird is a classically educated musician from Northwestern who can bow the hell out of his strings and wields the meanest whistle you’ve heard this side of “The Andy Griffith Show.” He’s technically masterful both in the studio and on stage, looping together melodic walls of sound with plucks and sinewy strings that fall apart at the slightest notice of a breeze. He’s a pastoral, prodigious indie pop star…on the verge of 40.
Albeit excellent, Noble Beast was a stagnation of Bird’s stylistic talking points. Sure, it was nuanced like all his records — more pastoral, less electric, even more hyper-literary — but nothing managed to rejuvenate his writing. Nothing had since The Mysterious Production of Eggs. It was Bird doing what he can seemingly do with regularity. But unfortunately, it had become just that: regular. With Break It Yourself, Bird’s maturation thusly takes on a sense of grounding himself. He’s stretching song structure more than ever and talking about the humble romanticisms he never openly expressed as a young writer singing about Greenland, maps and Scythians.
There are fleeting interstitial tracks of introspection (“Pollination,” “Things Behind the Barn”), searing violin solos (“Danse Carribe”), plodding beats and bare melodies (“Lusitania,” “Fatal Shore”), stompers and people intonating auxiliary percussion (“Orpheo Looks Back”). The melodies can turn on a dime (“Desperation Breeds…”), taking you through distinct phases. Or they can stretch over minutes, testing your patience and attentiveness.
While Bird’s music has always seemed effortless, it has heretofore been too meticulous to sound as organic as Break It Yourself. He’s not so much painstakingly crafting melodies and building songs; he’s, um, jamming — or so it seems. Somewhere along the way he found the youthful zeal to write more with feeling than with thought. This new nature gains poignancy on “Lusitania” in which St. Vincent’s Annie Clark, as if helping Bird along, sings, “Go ahead say somethin’ dumb, boy, there’s no shame.” They both sing it a second time.
When you start as an ambitious virtuoso, your path is reversed: the way to progress is to a more innocent place, one a little less heady, ambitious more in confidence and exuberance than anything else. The difference here is that critical interest has already piqued, while Bird arrives at this stage so late, knowing how to harness that zeal and confidence with educated, experienced expertise. For those paying attention, close attention, this is nothing short of a mini-resurgence (creatively speaking). And for that matter, it’s some of his best material to date.
Stream: Andrew Bird – “Eyeoneye”