Andrew Bird takes his talents to the world of film and succeeds as expected.
So, full disclosure I, suppose: if I'd have known Norman were a soundtrack before I had the opportunity to review it, I wouldn't have been interested in covering it. For me, the appeal in Andrew Bird has always lied in his vocals and the strange tales he decides to tell over his violin loops and guitar strums. I was taken by his instrumental sensibilities, sure, but only in the sense that it was pretty amazing to see him pull them off live in the years following The Mysterious Production of Eggs and they were capable of backing some pretty awesome, catchy pop songs.
I say all this to say that skipping Norman on such a basis would be a pretty fancy mistake. It's true that Norman is a more instrumental, soundtrack-y release than anything Bird's released to this point, but only at the times when a song by Chad VanGaalen, Wolf Parade or the Blow is playing does one get the impression they aren't hearing an entirely new Andrew Bird album. Norman opens with the typical sort of haunting beauty one would expect from Bird, though it's simply condensed into compact two minutes or less segments optimized for film reels instead of the usual four.
Adding to the intrigue of Norman are the three artists I previously mentioned, two of which provide older fan favorites while Khaela Maricich revives her the Blow moniker to collaborate with Richard Swift (a producer who recently joined the ranks of the Shins) for one of the album's longer cuts. Wolf Parade whip together a remix of "I Am a Runner" that sounds wholly unfamiliar to the original (think glockenspiels!) and practically certifies the price of admission on its own, while Chad VanGaalen throws "Rabid Bits of Time" from his 2008 album, Soft Airplane, into the ring. Since Bird doesn't do much vocalizing other than the early red herring "Arcs and Coloumbs", it's definitely nice to have these songs to both enhance the mood of the album and, in some ways, break up the monotony of it.
With Norman, Bird definitely succeeds in crossing over from album-making to soundtracking a film. But like most soundtracks, for my money it's hard to draw any real emotional weight from them without having first seen the film. Norman is, admittedly, a movie I'm not aiming to catch, but it seems to deal with familiar indie tropes of a quirky female pulling a reserved male out of his shell while the male deals with crushingly final family and life issues. The soundtrack, however, is extremely melancholy and other than the Wolf Parade and VanGaalen contributions, it feels more like something that would be backing a happy go lucky road movie themed around beaches and forest walks than the more serious vibe given off by the movie's press. So in a sense, if I were reviewing this as a soundtrack I'm not sure how successful I'd find it. Obviously, I'd have to see the movie. But as an Andrew Bird album with some special guests?
It's really about as beautiful and fun to listen to as you'd expect. Having seen the film or not.