Andrew Bird: Armchair Apocrypha
Time may be a crooked bow, but Andrew Bird is shooting for timelessness.
Great albums tend to suggest their ideal listening environment: the club, the car, headphones, stereo cranked to 11, winter, summer, etc., though they remain appropriate in most other contexts as well. Andrew Bird's latest, Armchair Apocrypha, suggests a fairly specific setting for me, inspired perhaps in equal parts by my own childhood nostalgia and scenes from several movies. I can think of no better time or place to listen to the majestic, seven-minute centerpiece "Armchairs" than a Sunday, lying on the floor in a warm parallelogram created by beams of afternoon light, contemplating every word and note, as it shifts through several phases rhythm, texture, and mood. In a career blessedly un-besmirched by unsavory choices or bum tracks, "Armchairs" is one of Bird’s best compositions, encapsulating all of his signature strengths while still demonstrating substantial musical growth. To quote his own "MX Missiles", it’s a revelation.
Bird could coast solely on whistling and virtuosic violin playing, so it's telling that his albums refrain from overkill of either. If anything, guitar is the dominant instrument on Apocrypha, but just barely. Each player and part is best utilized to serve a particular moment or song; jaws drop, but not for any showing off. The songs are limber and elastic, playful vehicles for Bird to extrapolate on and improvise with in a live setting. "Imitosis" is a reworking of "I" from 2003’s Weather Systems, and makes the latter feel almost lethargic in comparison. When I had the chance to interview Bird for PopMatters, he talked about lessening the density of his wordplay on future recordings. But "Imitosis", despite its sped-up tempo, renders its predecessor little more than a sketch in terms of language. The idea behind both is that we clutter our lives with "our machinations and our palindromes" to avoid the cold hard truth that "we're basically alone." This juxtaposition of humanity's concerns, large and small, with the enormous yawning expanse of nature's timeline is a recurring theme on the album.
The opener, "Fiery Crash", is a brother-in-arms to Wilco's "War on War", both musically and philosophically. Both hug an insistent, down-stroked rhythm guitar chord -- the same one, in fact, in the same key -- and both espouse unvarnished fatalism with similar language. But where "War On War", like much of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, eerily prefigured the events of 9/11, and the political/cultural landscape following, with the lyrics "You've gotta learn how to die / if you wanna be alive," Bird's vantage is retrospect. "To save our lives you've got to envision / the fiery crash," he sings before commenting, "It's just a formality / or must I explain / don't say no to mortality / before you get on a plane." The song, like Wilco's, is brisk and upbeat, almost cheerful as it renders anxiety and dread down to the inarguable fact that we all have to die someday. But lest you're concerned that Bird is peddling the familiar hippie/frat boy mantra of "eat, drink and be merry," which is too often an excuse for selfishness, both "Imitosis" and "Fiery Crash" appear to embrace healthy detachment. "Beach towels and magazines / Lou Dobbs and the CNN team on every monitor screen / You were caught in the Crossfire," he sings of the airport in "Fiery Crash", more machinations and palindromes.
Andrew Bird [Photo: Cameron Wittig]
"Scythian Empire" humorously imagines another scenario that gives industrialists tooth shivers. Replacing the plucked violin strings heard on the live version from Fingerlings 3 with piano and a rolling, Paul Simonish acoustic fingerpicking pattern, Bird sets it up, "The five day forecast's been black tar rains and hellfire / …the Halliburton attaché cases are useless / while scotch-guarded Macintoshes shall be carbonized / now they’re offering views of exiting empires / such breathtaking view of Scythian Empires." The tone is bemused relief rather than horror, sure to give imperialists fits with its theme of comeuppance, and -- gasp! -- the ultimate impotence of corporations, as they too will fall when the world ends, even if they bring it about themselves. As in Shelley's "Ozymandias", there's both a subtle, mocking humor at the fallen mighty, and a reverence for the relentless march of time.
"Plasticities" is more indicting, more direct, and one of Bird's catchiest. Starting, as many of the songs on Apocrypha do, with a quiet instrumental build-up, the song tackles such heavy topics as urban decay, cubicle culture and war with a delicate, un-self-righteous touch, and an eye always on the ticking clock. "We'll fight / we'll fight for your music halls and dying cities / they'll fight / they'll fight for your neural walls and plastic cities / and precious territory," he sings, adding, "You're gonna grow old / you're gonna grow so cold," throwing into question just what is worth fighting for. Directly following "Plasticities", "Heretics" nearly ups the catchiness factor with its chorus of "Thank God it's fatal / thank God it's fatal." Bird's voice at times follows his violin's melodic line, which in turn mimes the rhythm of his singing on "Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left", from his last album. As for heresy, he asks, "How about some credit now where credit is due / for the damage that we've done / we have wrought upon ourselves and others / with this low ambitious gun / and although pratfalls can be fun / encores can be fatal." But then he adds, most importantly, "Wait just a second now / It's not all that bad / Are we not having fun?"
Andrew Bird [Photo: Cameron Wittig]
By taking the piss out of himself and the cynicism out of his outlook, Bird's songs are not only smart and sensible but joyous and full of hope. "Dark Matter", a live-concert staple for the past couple years, begins in childhood -- "When I was just a little boy / I threw away all of my action toys / while I became obsessed with Operation" -- and then asks, "Do you wonder where the self resides / Is it your head or between your sides," conjuring an image of a tiny white plastic "self" sitting in its own little indentation in the classic board game. "Simple X", written by Bird and collaborator Martin Dosh, asks that "Before your neurons declare a crisis / before your trace serotonin rises / … perform the simplest exercises." Meditate, relax, focus, don't panic. First appearing as an instrumental on Dosh's 2004 album Pure Trash, the song blends Rhodes, skittering electronic and live beats, and those famous whistling skills into the album's biggest departure from Bird's signature sound, evoking nothing so much as Kid A on ecstasy, complete with falsettos. For all of the strife and daily alarms of impending doom we live with every day, which are alluded to throughout the album, "Simple X" provides a way to deal, to tune out the distractions and hype.
And then of course there's "Armchairs". Emerging from a cloud of intertwining violin tracks and brushed cymbals, "Armchairs" unfolds as a stately, piano-led ballad, its patient chords gently climbing. "I dreamed you were a cosmonaut / of the space between our chairs / and I was a cartographer / of tangles in your hair," Bird croons, melting hearts, "The saddest song that silence brings / is the one that everybody knows / …and this is how it goes." The song swells and halts abruptly, then tiptoes back into its easy gait. "In time you need to learn to love / the ebb just like the flow," he sings just before the song morphs from twilight into the dark night, promoting once again the sympathetic yet even-keeled realist's perspective found throughout the album. The song descends briefly into a bridge before the thunderous, climactic burst of emotion you always suspected Bird had in him. "Time's a crooked bow," he declares: time the root of all sorrow, time which drives humanity to distraction, to procrastination, time which leads to an even more intense apex at the song's end. After shifting rhythm and tempo, Bird's voice leaps out from its usually reserved corner. "You didn't write / You didn’t call / It didn't cross your mind at all," he accuses, perhaps a bit of apostrophe toward someone with whom it's far too late to reconnect. For this brief moment, Bird, with all his wit and talent, seems vulnerable, aware of his own advice but unable to take it. The song quickly dissolves soon after, but the passion, loss and sadness of "Armchairs" seeps out in all directions, suffusing the rest of the album with meaning and purpose. Oh yes, it's a revelation.