From the opening notes of the aptly named "First Song", you can tell that Andrew Bird recorded Weather Systems in a barn out in the middle of nowhere Illinois. After all, when an accomplished musician and lyrical wizard decides to kick off his first indie release after leaving Rykodisc with an acoustic flutter strum, high lonesome whistling, and nothing else is when you know he's gone introspective. And that usually takes isolation, especially if you want it to stick.
And Weather Systems sticks with you, whether it's the creepy atmospherics of the untitled fifth song (hey, find a name for it and I'll buy you a beer), the carnivalesque "I" (which sounds like it leapt right off of Tom Waits's canonical Swordfishtrombones), or the inclusion of Galway Kinnell's poem, "First Song", on Bird's tune of the same name. Whereas his earlier work seemed to reach hungrily outward into diverse styles and textures, this release feels like an altogether lonely experiment. Like Bird moans on the beautiful "I", atop disjointed Marc Ribot-like plucking, "We're basically alone".
That gorgeous solitude reaches its apotheosis on Weather Systems' third song, "Lull", where Bird explains (with almost mathematic precision), "Being alone can be quite romantic / Like Jacques Cousteau underneath the Atlantic / A fantastic voyage through parts unknown / Going to depths where the sun's never shone / I fascinate myself / When I'm all alone". The ingenious rhyme structure is enough to make you cry outright (Bird is one of the most underrated talents in music, period), but the striking confluence of his lyrical imagery and musical composition -- the song bounces happily along, as if riding Cousteau's mellow ocean homeward -- combined with his poignant delivery is a heady experience.
And that's just one song. It's enough to make you crack a smile, especially when he self-consciously skewers the solipsism of loneliness, turning the criticisms of Carly Simon's "You're So Vain" on himself ("Rambling on rather self-consciously / While I'm stirring these condiments into my tea / And I think I'm so lame / That I think this song is about me / Don't I don't I don't I?"). The layers of "Lull" alone are way too many to count, but it is merely one of Weather Systems' nine masterpieces of clever craftsmanship. While there may not be an overpowering drum or patently electric moment (such as The Swimming Hour's "How Indiscreet") to be found on this latest release, its gifts are still definitively present.
But for the small but loyal following that hangs on Bird's work like a faithful flock, Weather Systems is a goldmine. His poetry has never been sharper (my favorite line -- "We're keeping busy with our bleeding stone / And the machinations in our palindromes"), even if his spirit has never been more down-tempo. Aside from the understated groove, jazzy piano accents, and plucky guitar of "Skin" -- as well as the aforementioned "I" -- this is a collection of songs better suited to a night of candles and creativity than parties and passion. Although the skin-tight vocal interplay between Bird and Nora O'Connor is suggestively romantic enough that passion definitely becomes an issue that Weather Systems indirectly tackles; that is, for a guy who celebrates being "alone" for an entire album, he's got wonderful female company.
The only criticism I have of Weather Systems has nothing to do with Bird (probably), but rather his new label, Grimsey, who neglected to include Bird's lyrics on the release. Whoever's decision that may have been, this guy's wordplay is too amazing to exclude; his lyrics are, simply, a must, whether you're an early adopter or newcomer. Because, like most of his mates in the neo-swing outfit of yesteryear, Squirrel Nut Zippers, Andrew Bird is the whole package. To ignore one aspect of his formidable artistry is to shortchange the faithful who spend more money than they need to today to support a guy who, more than anyone, truly deserves it.
Questionable business decisions aside, Weather Systems is a hushed but densely layered success. It might be far too quiet to get Bird the much-deserved recognition that others should be heaping on him, but that doesn't mean it's lacking in punch. His quirky turns of phrase should make budding poets everywhere soak in their own jealousy; the labyrinthine musical phrasings are just icing on the cake. If you're a well-funded publicist or producer, do the world a favor and give this guy the spotlight he's probably shunned but should nevertheless receive.