When last we heard a proper record from Andrew Bird on 2008’s Noble Beast, he was in a strange place. Ever on the eccentric, clever edge of modern pop music, Bird sounded, well, normal, even settled. His heavily orchestrated songs all of a sudden felt too controlled, too tight and, as a result, lacked the snap of songs from Armchair Apocrypha or The Mysterious Production of Eggs. Perhaps the album was an end point, a moment where we (and Bird) realized he’d taken that approach as far as it could go. Break It Yourself, his new record, seeks to right the ship by taking a new approach. These recordings are as on the spot as Bird dares to get. Bird brought in a group of trusted musicians and basically ran tape while they rehearsed, figuring out the songs as a group with Bird giving the others a chance to find their parts on their own without too much direction from him. If the results still sound for all the world like the orchestral pop we’ve heard from Bird before, it is still certainly the loosest permutation of that sound.
These songs don’t feel constructed so much as they seem lived in, and when the performance matches up with the cleverness and tunefulness of these songs, that is when the record is at its most compelling. “Desperation Breeds … ” would be a strong entry in Bird’s discography either way, but what surprises about it is how it takes its time getting going, how the drums snap and shuffle their way into the groove, how a violin plucks quietly to life, how Bird’s own voice starts faint and then asserts itself. Elsewhere in the record, this live approach makes for striking flourishes, like the smoldering violin fills on “Danse Caribe” or the otherworldly fuzz of organ and guitar on “Near Death Experience Experience” coupled with the very human and sweet backing vocals.
With these flourishes Bird himself seems to have found new life, particularly in the middle of the album where the players give Bird a shot in the arm. “Give It Away” is as catchy a song as Bird has written, but it also plays off-kilter plucked violin over more keening strings to a strange but brilliant effect, and the song shifts from straight-on verse and chorus to shuffling breakdowns seamlessly, the changes sound almost on a whim. “Eyeoneye” is the most muscled, power-pop moment on the record, and its finest song, so that when Bird claims that – if no one will break your heart, “you’ve got to break it yourself” – you feel him doing the same. Not romanticizing heartbreak, mind you, but rather knocking down new barriers to get to true yet joyful feeling. This string of tunes – along with “Danse Caribe” and “Near Death Experience Experience” – anchor a lively middle of the record, that confirms that perhaps Bird and these players are, as he claims, “[dancing] like cancer survivors” shaking off the worry and the rust and delivering some solid tunes.
In the end, though, this middle of the record feels like an island with an all-too-calm sea of sounds around it. If these bring out the best in this live approach, much of the rest of the record makes this live experimentation feel slack. The bulk of the record chugs at mid-tempo, and its hour-long run time starts to drag once “Near Death Experience Experience” fades out. A song like “Sifters”, a bare and quiet guitar number, might sound fine on its own, but its bookended by “Orpheo Looks Back” – which starts as a lively barn-stomper before its wandering melodies quickly run out of steam – and the five-minute “Fatal Shore”, which is so languid it nearly slips into a torpor even Bird’s whistling can’t save. “Hole in the Ocean Floor”, the album’s eight-minute penultimate track, encapsulates most clearly the rut this album falls into. It has an extended orchestral intro, spacious and swaying, that is perfectly lovely on its own. However, when Bird starts singing and tries to shift it into an epic song – mostly with Bird’s voice and swells of strings – it feels huge and formless. The song never quite asserts itself so instead of marveling at the size and space of it, you start to wonder – pretty early on – where it’s going.
And so it is with Break It Yourself, an album with a solid first half, that restores the energy and vitality of Bird’s musical vision, and then slowly and steadily leaches that energy back out of it. What feels at first like true collaboration turns into something closer to trudging indulgence. The best parts of this record recall Bird at his finest, tweaking his sound just enough to freshen it up, but unfortunately they’re surrounded by too many songs that end up as pleasant background music. Andrew Bird is one of the great musical visionaries of the past decade, but on Break It Yourself – and for the second album in a row – it sounds like he’s still trying to figure out his next step.