Andrew Bird is a gift.
I say this not to give the man unnecessary praise. Rather, I have always found it miraculously fortunate whenever a classically trained musician like Bird deigns to the realm of making popular music.
Whereas the man seems talented enough to live his life as a concert violinist, he’s been equally known to play with Yo-Yo Ma as he has to appear as Dr. Stringz on the children’s program “Jack’s Big Music Show” or do whistling parts for the latest “Muppets” film. While we may never quite understand why Bird decided to start writing and recording indie rock records, we do get a bit of insight into the man’s psyche with his latest release, “Break It Yourself.”
Bird’s previous releases, going along the lines of the almost electro-experimental side of “Armchair Apocrypha” (à la the song “Simple X”) and the echoey violin pluck flow of “Andrew Bird and the Mysterious Production of Eggs” (à la “Skin is, My”), have always embraced a simplicity and dynamism that, although at once complicated by the complexity and extraordinary versatility of the combination of violin and loop pedal, imbues his music with a listenability that keeps him present in the indie pop realm.
“Break It Yourself” is a little different, as all new releases should be. With his fifth solo album, it seems Bird has reached a point of introspection. While you won’t find the same kind of blunt directness as you would with songs like “Dark Matter” or “Fiery Crash” from previous albums, “Break It Yourself” offers something different: a quieter, more reserved side of Bird.
“Danse Caribe” seems to abandon Bird’s classically trained roots in favor of a more rustic sentimentality, a tune more fit for a country bonfire than a metropolitan concert hall. Here, more fiddle than violin, Bird seems to see more of himself than ever before, an aural mirror for which we can see a truer, deeper image of the musician than we ever could before. Bird is pushing the limits of his instrument as he always has, though now less with loops as he is now with tone: he is so expressive with his violin, more so than before, to the point where it becomes less a vehicle of instrumentation as it is an extension of the musician himself: Bird, his whistling, his violin, his voice.
Indeed, much of this album seems like realms of life returning in a dream –– a call back to the eponymous track off “Armchair Apocrypha,” lyrics return in the haunting “Lazy Projector.” The refrain in the former, cried at the song’s height, goes: “Awkward pause, the fatal flaw / Time, it’s a crooked bow,” the latter song calls back after a ghostly flight of lyric in the introduction: “Though history repeats itself, and time’s a crooked bow / Come on, tell us something we don’t know.” A different kind of loop, to be sure –– looping back on lyrics from an album released five years ago seems a tenant of the man’s musical memory.
Though markedly different from his past albums in this pensive tone present throughout the album, fans of Bird shouldn’t be disappointed. The old elements are still there; though you won’t see the electronic tinkering of “Simple X” or the looped insanity of “Anonanimal,” listeners may instead be delighted by a duet with Annie Clark of St. Vincent. Clark has been on Bird’s albums before, but never this up front. The result is lovely, a musical familiarity and comfort that almost begs a collaboration album between the two. (A man can dream.)
This is not to say that there aren’t dynamic songs on the album; “Give It Away” (not a cover of the Chili Peppers, sorry) and “Eyeoneye” provide some faster tracks, the latter providing both the album’s name and the height of its spark. Still, even these tracks are kissed with a pensiveness that prevents them from becoming fully uninhibited bouts of impulsive indie rock liberation.
What sets “Break It Yourself” apart from the rest of his albums is that this seems less like an album as it does a strange but entirely appreciated look into the man’s musical diary. Both in the instrumental interludes “Polynation” and “Behind the Barn,” Bird seems more keen on doling out simple vignettes than giving hipsters something to dance to.
“Hole in the Ocean Floor” peels back Bird’s veil furthest, though: a look into the mind of the musician, seeming less like an album and more like sitting outside a room in which Bird is playing alone, a man with his violin and a loop pedal, playing to himself for everyone to hear. Sparse lyrics in the eight-minute track reflect a rude awakening: “I woke with a start / Crying bullets, beating heart / To hear all God’s creatures / Roaring again,” a transition into the bleating of violin plucking: awake, but not yet returned from the world of the dreamer. A dream becomes reality in the moment of waking. “Break It Yourself” is structured like this dream; where its first track, “Desperation Breeds…” gives us flight into a ghostly darkness, “Belles” brings us back into the real world.
We may never understand how Bird’s mind works, no. But here, the focus tightens just a bit.
Rating: 4 out of 5