[4 February 2014]
For the past two or so months, we’ve been able to sit with Andrew Bird’s latest experimental EP, I Want to See Pulaski at Night. It’s raw, sparse, experimental, and beautiful. It features Bird’s inventive violin work, looping both percussively and melodically over lilting rhythmic accompaniment. It’s eerily haunting at times and tranquil at others.
Then again, that description could be applied to most of Bird’s work. So what’s remarkable about Pulaski?
Well, consider that it’s an entire EP built around a single, centerpiece song: “Pulaski at Night”, which also happens to be the only track on the record with a vocal. The EP’s six other tracks are instrumentals, ranging in length from just one to an impressive eight minutes.
The experience of listening to Pulaski is pretty revelatory: it reveals that Andrew Bird’s remarkable talents on violin alone can’t carry an entire pop record.
Pulaski is Andrew Bird distilled and filtered until the rawest, purest form of his music is left behind. He’s less adventurous with instrumentation—we don’t get the steel drums or saxophone like we saw on his previous full-length effort Break It Yourself. Most of the instrumentals are baroque in style and in nomenclature, with “Hover I” and “Hover II” taking up two tracks, implying two related but separate movements. The record is bookended by “Ethio Invention no. 1” at the open and “Ethio Invention no. 2” to close it out.
It was smart to break up the tracks this way. Had Bird not done so, the record would run the risk of being monotonous. The “Ethio” tracks share a gorgeous, jaunting texture overlayed with expert violin flourishes. Both “Hover”s are slow, warm, orchestral ballads that show just how much sound an expert can put out with so few tools. Bird is really filling the room. Even on subpar sound systems, the music conveys a real sense of space.
Bird is at his most raw here. Occasional miscues are left in for the sake of purity. You can hear what must be a wooden bow set down onto a metal music stand several times throughout the record. And I swear I hear the familiar clack of a MacBook Pro space bar more than once, no doubt running some ProTools iteration that allows Bird to add layer upon layer to his sonic parfait. Or maybe I’m crazy.
But for all that, it can’t go without saying that 27 of this record’s 32 minutes are the same two or three instruments playing in the same style, with no hooks, choruses, lyrics, or any real structure to speak of. Song titles indicate common aural themes but those are vague at best and hard to grab onto. If you came looking for more of Bird’s introspective, classically inspired indie pop or folk, you’ll find little of it.
Is I Want to See Pulaski at Night a worthwhile experiment? Maybe. It rings arbitrary and aimless, something his earlier stuff might be accused of, but I think it’s finally a valid concern here. It’s so pure it borders on sterile.
Yet It certainly makes you appreciate what Bird is capable of. With his classically trained background and pedigree as a concert musician, he has every right to indulge in a record this divorced from the pop and indie ecosystem. But this is PopMatters, not SeniorRecitalMatters, so we’re going to have to look at it that way.
On those terms, Bird has been better—but perhaps not more interesting.