An Andrew Bird song has so many moving parts – bowed and plucked violin looped and layered; whistling as texture and as solo voice; lyrics by turns hermetic, clever, allusive, and affective – on top of the bass, drums, guitar, and keyboard you’d expect to hear from an indie-pop band. Add to that a compositional palette that can reference the allegretto of Beethoven’s seventh symphony in one song and summon the cello and guitar parts of the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” on the same violin in another, and it’s a wonder any of it ever holds together at all.
Some of the best of Andrew Bird’s music has come when he’s been willing to pare it down: the hypnotic 2016 duet with Esperanza Spalding on Alice Coltrane’s “Journey in Satchidananda” or the missing folk-rock classic “Three White Horses” on the 2012 EP Hands of Glory. At other times, he nails everything, down to the shifting sections and traditions of a song like “Danse Caribe” on the 2012 album Break It Yourself or the Velvet Underground undertones subsumed within an almost straightforward love song in “The Night Before Your Birthday” off the new album Inside Problems.
Not surprisingly, given the spoken-word video preview of the album released last April, the reception of Inside Problems has focused on interiority and reflection. This is in contrast to the political focus of Bird’s prior release, 2019’s My Finest Work Yet, which inserted Bird’s musings into historical processes, down to the cover art positioning the artist in a bathtub after Jacques-Louis David’s famous canvas, The Death of Marat. “In the way I figure,” Bird opens the preview video, “there’re two types of problems in this world: inside problems and outside problems. And it’s all happening inside, no one is privy to it.”
The thing is, as Bird certainly knows but fewer listeners have attended to, there are no outside problems without inside ones, or inside problems without outside ones. What his music does, like any other piece of culture, is to work the spaces between, the “membrane that separates your outside problems from your inside problems.” The guiding metaphor, from the album’s fourth, title track, is molting. As a way to think about that membrane, it’s recherché and a bit precious, like a lot of Bird’s metaphors. But also like a lot of his metaphors, it’s really apt for what he’s getting at. It’s literal, in that our skin does slough off constantly. It’s figurative, in that humans are not among the animals that regularly shed their skin. It’s at once miraculous, painful, and full of vulnerability, which makes it a powerful image for the kinds of artistic creation and public display that characterize periodic album releases and many other cycles of creation by public artists.
The image of molting is readily applicable in time-honored fashion to the stages of life of which the lyrics cite two directly: adolescence (“You lost your teenage plumage / So you make the same mistakes again once more”) and infancy (“Every inch of her a walking miracle / She just got born”). It all too neatly sidesteps the vexed and gendered process coyly alluded to in the third verse (“Incubate your bleeding heart now / Little piece of you you leave behind you”) whereby, in that equally clichéd but no less true dictum of second-wave feminism: the personal is the political. Menstruation is the closest humans come to the process of molting, and menstruation is also in most societies the moment girls become officially available for sanctioned possession by the men around them. Molting, in other words, means different things to different people, and one man’s metaphor may feel quite differently in the body of another. Talk about an inside problem that becomes an outside problem.
Of course, exposure is the risk of writing more straightforward lyrics if you’re lucky enough to be writing from a position where you haven’t already been exposed from birth. Compare “Inside Problems” to one of Bird’s early masterpieces, the version of the often reworked “Skin Is, My” on The Mysterious Production of Eggs (2005). Skin in this song certainly seems at first glance to be doing something similar to the molting on “Inside Problems”—after all, he’s singing about the same bodily organ. But these lyrics are incredibly evocative of something without ever really being about anything. They perfectly mesh with the song’s construction. It’s heard from the opening plucked violin, accompanied by a muted rhythm section to the electric guitar cutting loose in an almost rapped break. It’s an intense duet that returns to the main theme in a building crescendo. Like all the best songs, you feel what “Skin Is, My” is about. “Inside Problems” is a pretty song with a cool metaphor. However, like other Bird songs that are merely pleasant or cool, it never quite takes flight.
Flight may look easy, but we all know it’s not. That feeling of ease must be painstakingly crafted to the point where it seems like “a walking miracle”. And the best songs on Inside Problems take flight along with the earlier peaks in Bird’s capacious catalogue. “The Night Before Your Birthday” follows “Inside Problems” with a brief looped flourish of chamber music strings before bass and drums lead it into a love song, an opening verse over an ecstatic pastiche of the crescendo of “Sweet Jane.” A plucked violin takes over from the band to shift into a Bird-like middle section of epistemological doubt. The “Sweet Jane” band returns, complete with Modern Lovers’ vocal call-and-response.
This gives way to another plucked interlude before the two parts resolve following the invitation “let’s just linger for a while.” A bowed violin solo gradually morphs into a plucked and bowed duet that recalls nothing more than the wildest stretches of “Heroin.” Bird wraps the four-minute journey with a reprise of the title verse accompanied only by strummed guitar and plucked violin. Letting the words of others speak through you when, as the lyrics state, you’re “Afraid these words’ll come out wrong” is a classic pop strategy. I don’t know if it makes an effective love lyric because I have no idea what most of the words that did come out mean. But that doesn’t keep it from being a good song about the difficulty of writing love songs.
Despite all the moving parts and ideas in a song like “The Night Before Your Birthday”, Inside Problems is more stripped down than Bird’s classic run from Mysterious Production of Eggs to Hands of Glory. Frequent collaborator Alan Hampton’s bass is front and center of the now quieted drums and guitar, leaving space for Bird’s violin without abandoning the conventional pop-rock structures of his last couple of studio recordings, Are You Serious? (2016) and His Finest Work Yet (2019).
A bandleader this skilled on a lead instrument other than guitar or perhaps piano is still pretty rare in pop music, and Bird gives himself more solos in the classic rock sense than I remember in the past. Witness the sublime jam that takes over the final three minutes of “Eight” or the soloing that takes a verse early on in “Lone Didion” and then explodes into the outro without ever losing its hook. Especially given Bird’s virtuosic plucking, he seems to be taking over the guitar’s role without giving up the violin’s melodic beauty or the fiddle’s rhythmic drive along the way. In “Atomized“, he summons a Beethoven symphony with a single line or two; in “Fixed Positions“, it almost sounds like he has a chamber orchestra backing him in the studio.
In some ways the pop song form doesn’t do justice to Bird’s range as a musician; in other ways, it’s the distillation of that range into a compellingly compact framework. Side projects like the Echolocations series (2015, 2017) or the Fingerlings EPs (2002, 2004, 2006, 2010) explore violin soundscapes without the constraints of popular song. Other side projects—the 2014 album of Handsome Family covers or the 2020 holiday album Hark!—explore popular song forms without the generative impetus of Bird’s lyrics or violin looping.
Five or more years ago he also started doing collaborative concerts with guest musicians where they would essentially cover his songs, the guest’s songs, and songs of others’—everything from “Venus in Furs” (with Lucious) to “Sunny Side of the Street” (with Esperanza Spalding) to “This Must Be the Place” (with the Lumineers). Bird also released a series of stripped-down pop covers with Alan Hampton’s acoustic guitar accompanying his violin. Last year, there was an album of folk covers with fellow swing revival alumnus Jimbo Mathus, including a gorgeous “cover” of Bird’s own “Three White Horses”, which extended a practice from Bird’s early albums of reworking his own tunes.
There are neither free-flowing improvisations nor covers on Inside Problems. It sounds instead like Bird is drawing freely from the music library in his own head in ways he had not done so directly in the past. In opener “Underlands” and closer “Never Fall Apart“—two standout songs—Hampton’s heavy, driving, melodic double bass promises classic pop-soul perfection more than it does classic Andrew Bird. The bass keeps the line throughout, even when the songs get Birdlike complicated. “Never Fall Part”, indeed. “Oh, on the boulevard / Twisting broken burning shards / Walk softly with empty hand / Strike up the band” goes something like the bridge of the album’s final track, echoing Lloyd Trotman’s double bass on the Ben E. King gospel-soul standard “Stand by Me“.
Bird began his career mixing and matching all manner of forms and genres of folk and jazz with Bowl of Fire before moving into the more pop territory of Mysterious Production of Eggs. Pop music is built on resonance, borrowing, and homages, and I’m sure Bird heard all that on those earlier albums. But mostly what I heard in the earlier solo recordings was Bird himself. He gets at something of a shift in practice near the end of his home performance with bassist and singer-songwriter Esperanza Spalding. Bird explains that the series of live collaborations has “created a new sort of discipline for me. Having to bring people in, learn their songs. And it feels … I don’t know … as opposed to just sitting on the couch and working on my own tunes. Taking a break from that and reaching out. … I’ve been through phases which were much more introspective and not as, you know, reaching out, and this is the opposite of that.”
Bird has always been a collaborative performer, but the 2016 date of that comment also suggests a new political context for it. That context has not vanished on the new album, but it’s now fully meshed into the songs. After all, those performances were inside productions too—as Spalding put it, “opening your home for everybody to gawk at and make sounds inside of.” What’s political in those collaborations is the same thing I find political on Inside Problems. It’s perhaps the first time Bird has made his songs so easily accessible to his audience. “Welcome back,” Spalding says to Bird by way of farewell.
None of the songs I hear on Inside Problems is obscure, although some of them might once have been; these days, they’re fully part of the pop canon, what Bird in a recent interview called “the vernacular”: “It’s starting to become a sort of vernacular, with the way I play and the way I phrase and the way I put a song together. It’s not so much about reinventing the wheel”. Ten years back, the instructions were to break it ourselves. Maybe Bird has finally reconciled himself to what might happen when he breaks it for us first.