BEFORE YOU LISTEN to Andrew Bird’s new album Are You Serious (and I’ll get it out of the way now: yes, you should listen to Andrew Bird’s new album Are You Serious), go out and get yourself a decent pair of headphones. There’s a lot going on in nearly every one of these 11 songs, and missing a single instrument in the mix means that you’re missing out on a key element of why this album works. It has plenty of flaws, some more obvious than others, and it comes close to running out of steam toward the middle of its 43 minutes, but the production and sheer musical prowess on display propel the album beyond its shortcomings.
After last year’s more experimental Echolocations: Canyon, the straightforward lo-fi folk rock sound on Are You Serious seems like a regression rather than a step forward for Bird, who’s been known in the past for his diversity and eccentricity. With the opener “Capsized”, though, it’s clear that he’s in his element, showcasing effects-laden violin riffs, punchy drums which reach into the bass range without sacrificing their place in the mix, and guitar fills that would have been at home on one of Talk Talk’s later albums. However, it’s a little unclear to me why the album’s marketing has pushed the song so heavily (between cable TV performances and deluxe-edition-exclusive alternate versions, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s the only track the label’s proud of), because it’s not a prime example of the album’s overall feel. It’s a good song, to be sure, and an effective opener, but between Bird’s relatively noncommittal vocal performance and a general lack of structural variation (verse-chorus-verse all the way, without so much as a bridge to break things up; this wouldn’t be as noticeable an issue if the rest of the album weren’t so structurally fluid), it’s not the best song here, nor the one most indicative of what makes Are You Serious tick.
Both of those distinctions go to “Truth Lies Low”, the track that convinced me that headphones are a requirement for listening to this thing. One of the few cuts that doesn’t mind taking its time to develop, “Truth Lies Low” lets its instruments jump across audio channels and create a soundscape that’s packed with different noises (a sliding bass line here, a fleeting violin string pluck there) but never overstuffed. It’s a joy to listen to the whole way through. Other highlights include “Roma Fade”, the first great song on the record and the one with the best multipurpose use of Bird’s violin; “Chemical Switches”, an acoustic piece that provides a much-needed break from the bombast of the first few tracks; “Saints Preservus”, a four-minute buildup with worthwhile payoff; and “Valleys of the Young”, the most lyrically effective and slow-paced song here.
Alas, an album with this much going on is bound to have a few elements that fall flat. One of the most irritating issues is the fact that Bird obviously has a gift for counterpoint (“Truth Lies Low” has constant interplay between the different melodic lines, and it works great), but he’s often content to let the instruments mirror rather than complement. It’s effective at times (the violin and guitar blend together so well in the opening seconds of “Capsized” that it’s difficult to tell the two apart), but when the electric guitar barely deviates from the vocal melody throughout the title track’s entire chorus, there’s a distinct sense of wasted potential.
Most of the problems with Are You Serious stem from wasted potential, actually. “Left Handed Kisses” is wonderful on paper; it’s an ironic love song with little meta-musical lyrical flourishes (the refrain goes “Got me writing love songs/With a common refrain like this one”) in the vein of Fiona Apple’s “Werewolf”. And it features Fiona Apple herself! In practice, though, every melodic idea it presents is given hardly any time to unfold before the next one pushes it out. The coda (which opens with “now it's time for a handsome little bookend”; the self-awareness starts to wear a little thin at this point) sounds like it belongs in a different song entirely, and the two vocalists start harmonizing far too late in the proceedings. Ironically, the shortest and simplest track, “Bellevue”, feels like it takes more of a complete journey than “Left Handed Kisses” and “Puma” (another song whose melodies go all over the place) do with an extra minute at their disposal.
But in the end, do these minor beefs even matter? In an interview with NPR’s All Songs Considered podcast in February, Bird called Are You Serious “the strongest melodies and the strongest ideas that occurred to me over a three to four year period, distilled”. Each word of that statement shows in the music, for better and for worse. Are You Serious isn’t perfect by any stretch, but on this record, Andrew Bird has compiled 11 good songs. Every track is well-produced. Every track has competent lyrics. Every track is melodically solid. Every track exhibits Bird’s impressive performing abilities (the things he does with a violin are incredible). Every track is individually memorable. How many albums can say all those things, really? B