Andrew Bird: Break It Yourself

Andrew Bird is one of the great pop visionaries of the past decade, but, for the second album in a row, it sounds like he's still trying to figure out his next step.

Andrew Bird

Break It Yourself

US Release: 2012-03-06
UK Release: 2012-03-05
Label: Mom + Pop

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.







The 10 Best Experimental Albums of 2015

Music of all kinds are tending toward a consciously experimental direction. Maybe we’re finally getting through to them.


John Lewis, C.T. Vivian, and Their Fellow Freedom Riders Are Celebrated in 'Breach of Peace'

John Lewis and C.T. Vivian were titans of the Civil Rights struggle, but they are far from alone in fighting for change. Eric Etheridge's masterful then-and-now project, Breach of Peace, tells the stories of many of the Freedom Riders.


Unwed Sailor's Johnathon Ford Discusses Their New Album and 20 Years of Music

Johnathon Ford has overseen Unwed Sailor for more than 20 years. The veteran musician shows no sign of letting up with the latest opus, Look Alive.

Jedd Beaudoin

Jazz Trombonist Nick Finzer Creates a 'Cast of Characters'

Jazz trombonist Nick Finzer shines with his compositions on this mainstream jazz sextet release, Cast of Characters.


Datura4 Travel Blues-Rock Roads on 'West Coast Highway Cosmic'

Australian rockers Datura4 take inspiration from the never-ending coastal landscape of their home country to deliver a well-grounded album between blues, hard rock, and psychedelia.


Murder Is Most Factorial in 'Eighth Detective'

Mathematician Alex Pavesi's debut novel, The Eighth Detective, posits mathematical rules defining 'detective fiction'.


Eyedress Sets Emotions Against Shoegaze Backdrops on 'Let's Skip to the Wedding'

Eyedress' Let's Skip to the Wedding is a jaggedly dreamy assemblage of sounds that's both temporally compact and imaginatively expansive, all wrapped in vintage shoegaze ephemera.


Of Purges and Prescience: On David France's LGBTQ Documentary, 'Welcome to Chechnya'

The ongoing persecution of LGBTQ individuals in Chechnya, or anywhere in the world, should come as no surprise, or "amazement". It's a motif undergirding the history of civil society that certain people will always be identified for extermination.


Padma Lakshmi's 'Taste the Nation' Questions What, Exactly, Is American Food

Can food alone undo centuries of anti-immigrant policies that are ingrained in the fabric of the American nation? Padma Lakshmi's Taste the Nation certainly tries.


Performing Race in James Whale's 'Show Boat'

There's a song performed in James Whale's musical, Show Boat, wherein race is revealed as a set of variegated and contradictory performances, signals to others, a manner of being seen and a manner of remaining hidden, and it isn't "Old Man River".


The Greyboy Allstars Rise Up to Help America Come Together with 'Como De Allstars'

If America could come together as one nation under a groove, Karl Denson & the Greyboy Allstars would be leading candidates of musical unity with their funky new album, Como De Allstars.


The Beatles' 'Help!' Redefined How Personal Popular Music Could Be 55 Years Ago

Help! is the record on which the Beatles really started to investigate just how much they could get away with. The album was released 55 years ago this week, and it's the kick-off to our new "All Things Reconsidered" series.


Porridge Radio's Mercury Prize-Nominated 'Every Bad' Is a Wonderful Epistemological Nightmare

With Every Bad, Porridge Radio seduce us with the vulnerability and existential confusion of Dana Margolin's deathly beautiful lyricism interweaved with alluring pop melodies.


​​Beyoncé's 'Black Is King' Builds Identity From Afrofuturism

Beyoncé's Black Is King's reliance on Afrofuturism recuperates the film from Disney's clutches while reclaiming Black excellence.

Reading Pandemics

Colonial Pandemics and Indigenous Futurism in Louise Erdrich and Gerald Vizenor

From a non-Native perspective, COVID-19 may be experienced as an unexpected and unprecedented catastrophe. Yet from a Native perspective, this current catastrophe links to a longer history that is synonymous with European colonization.


John Fullbright Salutes Leon Russell with "If the Shoe Fits" (premiere + interview)

John Fullbright and other Tulsa musicians decamped to Leon Russell's defunct studio for a four-day session that's a tribute to Dwight Twilley, Hoyt Axton, the Gap Band and more. Hear Fullbright's take on Russell's "If The Shoe Fits".

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.