Andrew Bird: Are You Serious

Andrew Bird returns with the same sinuous, gypsy-folk style, but introduces a newfound thematic interest in love's complexities

Andrew Bird

Are You Serious

Label: Loma Vista
US Release Date: 2016-04-01
UK Release Date: 2016-04-01

Andrew Bird, in all likelihood, has never been accused of being a romantic. Historically, his lyrics aren't concerned with the complexities that arise in an authentic consideration of love and the passions that attend it: gripping heartache, lacerating jealousy, the chest-cavity-crunching sensation of finding temporary yet ecstatic oneness in another person's flesh. In this way, he has distinguished himself from other conspicuously literate gypsy-folk songwriters of a similar stripe; while they're usually preoccupied with the lyrical potential of these passions stretched out and given symbolic form, he's preoccupied with a more esoteric iconography of artifacts, landscapes, and interpersonal concepts. If there is a love he can be accused of indulging in, it is a love of language. In "The Naming of Things" from 2005's The Mysterious Production of Eggs, he sings, "Memories, like mohair sweaters / Stretched and pilled faux distressed letters", a line that, not uncharacteristically, bears more phonetic value than actual narrative heft. That nearly ubiquitous and perhaps outmoded romantic epithet that pervades so much of pop music -- "baby" -- would seem misplaced in much of Bird's catalogue. It's too direct, rudimentary, without enough nuance to give him the space to explore.

Yet this shifts in Are You Serious, Bird's first collection of original pop material since 2012's Hands of Glory. Here, with his marriage pressing on the frontlines of his memory, love rises to the surface of his lyrical repertoire, assuming a significance it has yet to achieve in his discography. However, love -- as a concept, as a theme -- is still modulated through Bird's particular brand of cryptographic wordplay and ironic self-expression.

In "Left Handed Kisses", a melodically resplendent indie-folk duet with Fiona Apple, he seems to surprise himself with the affections stirring his blood into a beltway of furies: "Now you got me writing love songs," he tells his lover, "With a common refrain like this one here / Ba-a-a-a-a-a-by", and it's this punctuating "Baby", a mélange of shattered glass reassembling itself in his mouth, that becomes the centerpiece of the album. It's a word attenuated and drawn out to such a degree that you can hear Bird realize, in the middle of the quavering pitch-and-fall of the first syllable, that he's using a platitude that would never appear in a song like "The Naming of Things" or "Fake Palindromes". Yet he doesn't resist it. In fact, he lets it work him to the bone: the reverberations of this "Baby", and the passions that pulled it out involuntarily through his throat, can be detected in the track's carried-away-with-itself guitar strumming and tremulous violin accompaniment, even in the voice of Apple's distrustful interlocutor. Indeed, it's a track irrefutably about love and love's complications and, although Bird is accustomed to more arcane stylings, his unique flavor of hyper-poeticized lyricism ("Drifting gently through the gyre / Of the great Sargasso sea") works to further magnify his protagonist's conflicted infatuation with the "baby" standing across from him.

But what do we make of this shift? By abruptly pivoting to an overt amorism that he's always skirted before, does Bird not commit some form of hypocrisy? Or, put another way, should we pose the question that gives the album its title? That is, do we ask him outright: are you serious? These are all questions that Bird seems to anticipate and direct towards himself throughout the course of the LP. For instance, in the rootsy power-folk stomper "Valleys of the Young", he interrogates the inevitability of love's progression from dyad-to-family-to-death, its insistence that you must retreat from the world as such, build a new world exclusively around the loved one, and then, finally, around the children you "bring into this world" with the loved one. "Still our hearts are constantly breaking / From their cradle to our grave," he sings, remarking on the inescapable pressures exerted on a relationship once a child enters the picture.

But then he points a question, not at the decision to have a child, but at this relationship itself. "Is it selfish, or is it brave," he asks, caught between the indulgent egoism of love, on the one hand, and its empowering selflessness on the other. But then he answers himself with a wordless affirmation of both of these symptoms and, likewise, their irresolvable entanglement with one another: "Na na na na na na na," he stammers, then falls back into a swell of electric guitar, drum thwacks, and shimmering choral figures that all, together, embody the very inevitability of love's demands that he just interrogated and that, by extension, all give a new sonic form to the "Ba-a-a-a-a-a-by" in "Left Handed Kisses", a form that although not linguistically legible in the same way, still means exactly the same thing. Propulsive, sincere, and lyrically opaque enough to still be a distinctly Birdian composition, "Valleys of the Young" is a highlight on an album of many highlights.

To be sure, those who are already Bird fans will find no reason to complain here. "Saint Preservus" sounds so familiar that you may suspect that you've heard it before. It's overrun with almost every trick up Bird's sleeve: ponderous whistling, nimble guitar plucking, and a melody so agile and sinuously evocative that it nears timelessness. "Roma Fade", similarly, could compete with the best of Bird's back catalogue. The weaving, carnivalesque violin motif that anchors it seems to enact the "rearrangement of molecules" that its lyric describes as love's byproduct. In fact, this description -- love's byproduct -- could be applied to Are You Serious  as a whole, for it's an album that's just as much indebted to love as a symptom as it is interested in it as a phenomenon.







'Bigger Than History: Why Archaeology Matters'

On everything from climate change to gender identity, archaeologists offer vital insight into contemporary issues.


DYLYN Dares to "Find Myself" by Facing Fears and Life's Dark Forces (premiere + interview)

Shifting gears from aspiring electropop princess to rock 'n' rule dream queen, Toronto's DYLYN is re-examining her life while searching for truth with a new song and a very scary-good music video.


'Avengers: Endgame' Culminates 2010's Pop Culture Phenomenon

Avengers: Endgame features all the expected trappings of a superhero blockbuster alongside surprisingly rich character resolutions to become the most crowd-pleasing finalés to a long-running pop culture series ever made.


Max Richter's 'VOICES' Is an Awe-Inspiring and Heartfelt Soundscape

Choral singing, piano, synths, and an "upside-down" orchestra complement crowd-sourced voices from across the globe on Max Richter's VOICES. It rewards deep listening, and acts as a global rebuke against bigotry, extremism and authoritarianism.


JOBS Make Bizarre and Exhilarating Noise with 'endless birthdays'

Brooklyn experimental quartet JOBS don't have a conventional musical bone in their body, resulting in a thrilling, typically off-kilter new album, endless birthdays.


​Nnamdï' Creates a Lively Home for Himself in His Mind on 'BRAT'

Nnamdï's BRAT is a labyrinth detailing the insular journey of a young, eclectic DIY artist who takes on the weighty responsibility of reaching a point where he can do what he loves for a living.


Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few Play It Cool​

Austin's Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few perform sophisticatedly unsophisticated jazz/Americana that's perfect for these times


Eleanor Underhill Takes Us to the 'Land of the Living' (album stream)

Eleanor Underhill's Land of the Living is a diverse album drawing on folk, pop, R&B, and Americana. It's an emotionally powerful collection that inspires repeated listens.


How Hawkwind's First Voyage Helped Spearhead Space Rock 50 Years Ago

Hawkwind's 1970 debut opened the door to rock's collective sonic possibilities, something that connected them tenuously to punk, dance, metal, and noise.


Graphic Novel 'Cuisine Chinoise' Is a Feast for the Eyes and the Mind

Lush art and dark, cryptic fables permeate Zao Dao's stunning graphic novel, Cuisine Chinoise.


Alanis Morissette's 'Such Pretty Forks in the Road' Is a Quest for Validation

Alanis Morissette's Such Pretty Forks in the Road is an exposition of dolorous truths, revelatory in its unmasking of imperfection.


Hip-Hop's Raashan Ahmad Talks About His Place in 'The Sun'

On his latest work,The Sun, rapper Raashan Ahmad brings his irrepressible charisma to this set of Afrobeat-influenced hip-hop.


Between the Buried and Me's Baby Pictures Star in 'The Silent Circus'

The Silent Circus shows Between the Buried and Me developing towards the progressive metal titans they would eventually become.


The Chad Taylor Trio Get Funky and Fiery on 'The Daily Biological'

A nimble jazz power trio of drums, tenor sax, and piano, the Chad Taylor Trio is free and fun, funky and fiery on The Daily Biological.


Vistas' 'Everything Changes in the End' Is Catchy and Fun Guitar Rock

Vistas' debut, Everything Changes in the End, features bright rock music that pulls influences from power-pop and indie rock.


In Amy Seimetz's 'She Dies Tomorrow', Death Is Neither Delusion Nor Denial

Amy Seimetz's She Dies Tomorrow makes one wonder, is it possible for cinema to authentically convey a dream, or like death, is it something beyond our control?


Maestro Gamin and Aeks' Latest EP Delivers LA Hip-Hop Cool (premiere + interview)

MaestroAeks' Sapodigo is a collection of blunted hip-hop tunes, sometimes nudging a fulsome boom-bap and other times trading on laid-back, mellow grooves.


Soul Blues' Sugaray Rayford Delivers a "Homemade Disaster" (premiere + Q&A)

What was going to be a year of touring and building Sugaray Rayford's fanbase has turned into a year of staying home and reaching out to fans from his Arizona home.

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.