[18 January 2009]
The violin has always played a central role in Andrew Bird’s music. That’s not surprising when you consider the fact that Bird first picked up a violin at the age of four. In the 30 or so years since then, however, he’s managed to become proficient at playing a number of other instruments—the guitar, the mandolin, the glockenspiel—and has even mastered both the use of his own voice and the sound of his whistle. In retrospect, then, it should be equally unsurprising that on Armchair Apocrypha, Bird’s 2007 full-length, the violin often took a back seat to other instruments. That’s not to say that there was little violin on the album, but rather that Bird’s virtuosic playing was showcased somewhat conservatively, thereby increasing its impact. This also allowed Bird to use a more varied pallet, bringing in more electric guitar, electronics, and keys than he had used in the past. The end result was a densely layered record full of grandiose, complex melodies, memorable hooks, and clever couplets.
If Armchair Apocrypha was Bird’s reaction against his previous albums’ string-heavy bent, then his latest full-length, Noble Beast, in turn serves as a reaction against Armchair Apocrypha. Gone are the sonically generous compositions, as well as much of the apocalyptic subject matter and black humor of that record. In their place you’ll find breezy melodies, acoustic instrumentation, and songs that easily stretch out to six or seven minutes in length. On Noble Beast, you hear the sound of the maestro at his most relaxed, as he loosens his grip on the reins, allowing melodies to blossom at their own pace.
Unfortunately, this approach cuts both ways. Bird is a notoriously meticulous songwriter and composer (allegedly, he scrapped The Mysterious Production of Eggs twice before committing to tape a version that he liked), and on Noble Beast he makes an obvious attempt to confront those impulses. On the songs where this approach works, namely “Not a Robot, But a Ghost” and “Anonanimal”, the results are stunning—complex songs that sound organic, rather than fussed over. However, on the songs where it doesn’t quite work the results are mixed; songs meander in search of an ending, melodies float in the air but never quite come into focus. As it turns out, most of the songs that make up Noble Beast fall into the latter category, making it the most uneven album in Bird’s solo catalog by a wide margin.
Take, for example, the album’s opening suite: “Oh No”, “Masterswarm”, and “Fitz & Dizzyspells”. Bird has spent the last 15 years crafting an inimitable musical style by cobbling together pieces from various musical traditions, and indeed, all three of these songs are immediately recognizable as his creations. “Oh No” is the classically unhurried opening number (see “First Song” and “Sovay”), consisting of little more than a deliberately plucked acoustic guitar with pizzicato violin notes dotted about, handclaps, tambourine on the chorus to add levity, and a bit of whistling in the intro and outro. “Masterswarm” opens with a bit of folky fingerpicking, which eventually gives way to a series of handclaps and errant strums that sound almost like a slow Salsa. About midway through, we get a recurring clean guitar line that evokes Bends-era Radiohead, and at the end, a distant violin line. “Fitz & Dizzyspells” skews closer to the Armchair Apocrypha model, favoring layered (though mostly acoustic) guitar lines and propulsive drums, though there’s a brief pizzicato coda at the one minute mark.
On paper, these songs probably sound like, well, Andrew Bird songs, but therein lies the problem. Listening to the album’s first three tracks, you get the feeling that these songs could have been written at just about any point during Bird’s career. There’s little sense of progression from Armchair Apocrypha—rather, these songs sound like throwbacks, like songs that might have appeared on The Mysterious Production of Eggs or earlier, though they lack the focus and catchy hooks of Bird’s work from that era. While they’re certainly pleasant enough, chances are you won’t find yourself whistling along to these songs, even after repeated listens.
Luckily, “Effigy”, the album’s fourth track, fares far better. It opens by utilizing an old trick from Bird’s live repertoire—looped violin lines layered atop each other—before moving on to the song’s second movement, a folky, guitar-driven number with interludes of shuffling, jazzy percussion and fiddle that push the song forward. The choruses feature Bird harmonizing with a female backup singer to great effect, lending the song a wistful feel even as its lyrics find the narrator addressing someone intent on burning an effigy of him.
Speaking of lyrics, “Tenuousness” features some of the album’s best, opening with the lines, “Tenuous at best / Is all he had to say when pressed / About the rest of it / The world, that is”. From there it’s headfirst into a classic Andrew Bird tongue twister: “From proto-Sanskrit Minoans to porto-centric Lisboans / Greek Cypriots and Hobishots / Who hang around the ports a lot / Uh-huh” (Seriously, is there not a competitive rhyming league for this guy to participate in?). The song spends its remaining three minutes slowly building up momentum until midway through, handclaps break out, their rhythmic clop-clop sounding more like horses’ hooves than human hands.
“Not a Robot, But a Ghost”, Noble Beast‘s answer to “Simple X”, stands as both the album’s most adventurous track and its most rewarding. Opening with a few mournful horns and a glitchy, IDM-influenced rhythm, it quickly dives into a sea of fragmented digital beats. “I run the numbers through the floor / Here’s how it goes, I’ll crack the code / I’ll crack the code and end the war”, Bird sings, longing for an age when, free of moral ambiguity, war was the exclusive enterprise of heroes and villains. Before long, he pulls out his mandolin and starts furiously strumming out a gypsy folk melody while a lilting violin line traces the contours of a classical Chinese tune. As the song progresses, Bird’s voice becomes more desperate and pleading. Though it’s entirely possible that he’s talking about a relationship, it sounds as if he really believes he can end the war by simply cracking a mathematical code.
Unlike “Not a Robot, But a Ghost”, “Anonanimal” sticks closer to the tried and true Andrew Bird formula, though it’s an equally spellbinding piece. A series of pizzicato violin notes kicks things off, and before long cascading guitar arpeggios are giving chase. Bird lets things simmer for a while, finally allowing his voice to soar on the chorus. “We’ll become less animal / None of those appendages / A non-animal / Anonanimal”, he sings, inventing new terms and introducing literary ambiguities, as he is wont to do.
With the exception of the triumphant ballad “The Privateers”, the album’s final four tracks are much like its first three. Pleasant, slow dirges, these songs take their time unfolding, with few of their hooks catchy enough to grab the listener’s attention and invite him or her deeper into the fold. “Souverian”, especially, tends to drag; a seven-minute-plus track that sounds all the more overstuffed next to “The Privateers”’ three minutes of bliss.
At 14 tracks and 54 minutes, Noble Beast can be an undertaking befitting of its name. Diehard Bird fans, however, will be excited to hear that a deluxe version of the album includes a second disc. Useless Creatures, an instrumental album, provides the listener with an additional 51 minutes of music, and luckily it’s a far more adventurous, varied affair than the Beast that proceeded it.
Unsurprisingly, a number of the tracks on Useless Creatures find Bird making use of his loop station, but freed from the pressures of writing “real” songs, he turns up some interesting results. “You Woke Me Up” is quite theatrical in its delivery, its pizzicato notes creeping along at a steady pace as Bird passionately overlays violin melodies atop. “Nyatiti” sounds almost like a Shugo Tokumaru song, with its clattering, pots-and-pans rhythms and its playful, upbeat guitar melodies. “The Barn Tapes” finds Bird taking a stab at an ambient drone piece, using tape loops to stretch and bend violin notes into bizarre, atonal shapes. It’s a mesmerizing song that at times recalls the textural aesthetic of My Bloody Valentine’s “Touched”. “Carrion Suite”, a four-part suite that features Todd Sickafooose on the bass and Wilco’s Glenn Kotche on drums, is by turns jazzy, operatic, and spare. Finally, on “Hot Math”, Bird finds an outlet for his recent obsession with West African pop, and thankfully it sounds nothing like Vampire Weekend.
Were Noble Beast an album by another artist, it would be easier to forgive its flaws and indulgences. But given that this is Andrew Bird, from whom we’ve come to expect so much, it’s hard not to feel disappointed. Whereas both The Mysterious Production of Eggs and Armchair Apocrypha stand as exemplars of tight, focused pop songcraft, Noble Beast often feels wooly and bloated. To wit, in his review of The Mysterious Production of Eggs, PopMatters critic Peter Funk remarked that “Too often an artist’s focus will wander when attempting such a varied, dense album, creating an uneven whole that jars the listener in swerving from excellence to mediocrity”, though he rightly felt that The Mysterious Production of Eggs “stands firm from beginning to end.” Michael Metivier echoed these sentiments in his review of Armchair Apocrypha, lauding Bird for “a career blessedly un-besmirched by unsavory choices or bum tracks.” You see, it’s not that Noble Beast is all that bad, its just that Bird has in the past been, consistently, just that good.
To be sure, there’s some real meat to be found in Noble Beast‘s middle section, though getting there requires wading through multiple mediocre tracks that brush up against, if not exceed, the five-minute mark. Given the album’s excessive runtime, Bird probably could have stood to cull a few of the weaker numbers, and with the additional room, might have reworked a few of the selections from Useless Creatures into experimental pop songs, thereby tempering his lack of risk taking on Noble Beast. By pursuing just such a hybrid approach, Bird could have reconciled his two halves: pop auteur and experimental composer, neurotic producer and easygoing improviser. Here’s hoping that his next album is, indeed, just such a Noble Creature.