Music

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
Amazon
iTunes

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.

8
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Music

12 Essential Performances from New Orleans' Piano "Professors"

New Orleans music is renowned for its piano players. Here's a dozen jams from great Crescent City keyboardists, past and present, and a little something extra.

Music

Jess Williamson Reimagines the Occult As Source Power on 'Sorceress'

Folk singer-songwriter, Jess Williamson wants listeners to know magic is not found in tarot cards or mass-produced smudge sticks. Rather, transformative power is deeply personal, thereby locating Sorceress as an indelible conveyor of strength and wisdom.

By the Book

Flight and Return: Kendra Atleework's Memoir, 'Miracle Country'

Although inconsistent as a memoir, Miracle Country is a breathtaking environmental history. Atleework is a shrewd observer and her writing is a gratifying contribution to the desert-literature genre.

Music

Mark Olson and Ingunn Ringvold Celebrate New Album With Performance Video (premiere)

Mark Olson (The Jayhawks) and Ingunn Ringvold share a 20-minute performance video that highlights their new album, Magdalen Accepts the Invitation. "This was an opportunity to perform the new songs and pretend in a way that we were still going on tour because we had been so looking forward to that."

Music

David Grubbs and Taku Unami Collaborate on the Downright Riveting 'Comet Meta'

Comet Meta is a brilliant record full of compositions and moments worthy of their own accord, but what's really enticing is that it's not only by David Grubbs but of him. It's perhaps the most emotive, dream-like, and accomplished piece of Grubbsian experimental post-rock.

Music

On Their 2003 Self-Titled Album, Buzzcocks Donned a Harder Sound and Wore it With Style and Taste

Buzzcocks, the band's fourth album since their return to touring in 1989, changed their sound but retained what made them great in the first place

Reading Pandemics

Chaucer's Plague Tales

In 18 months, the "Great Pestilence" of 1348-49 killed half of England's population, and by 1351 half the population of the world. Chaucer's plague tales reveal the conservative edges of an astonishingly innovative medieval poet.

Music

Country's Jaime Wyatt Gets in Touch With Herself on 'Neon Cross'

Neon Cross is country artist Jaime Wyatt's way of getting in touch with all the emotions she's been going through. But more specifically, it's about accepting both the past and the present and moving on with pride.

Music

Counterbalance 17: Public Enemy - 'It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back'

Hip-hop makes its debut on the Big List with Public Enemy’s meaty, beaty manifesto, and all the jealous punks can’t stop the dunk. Counterbalance’s Klinger and Mendelsohn give it a listen.

Music

Sondre Lerche and the Art of Radical Sincerity

"It feels strange to say it", says Norwegian pop artist Sondre Lerche about his ninth studio album, "but this is the perfect time for Patience. I wanted this to be something meaningful in the middle of all that's going on."

Books

How the Template for Modern Combat Journalism Developed

The superbly researched Journalism and the Russo-Japanese War tells readers how Japan pioneered modern techniques of propaganda and censorship in the Russo-Japanese War.

Film

From Horrifying Comedy to Darkly Funny Horror: Bob Clark Films

What if I told you that the director of one of the most heartwarming and beloved Christmas movies of all time is the same director as probably the most terrifying and disturbing yuletide horror films of all time?

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

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