Andrew Bird could fall down the stairs and the resulting sounds would be worth listening to. I wouldn’t wish that on him but, nonetheless, I would imagine that the thumps and yelps would start soft, drawing the listener in, and then crescendo into a raucous and poetic chorus. Such is his innate ability to craft melodic and heartfelt music; it seems he does it without even trying. Bird, now on his seventh solo studio album, is an elder statesman of the indie music scene. His releases are always discussed but how good they are doesn’t necessarily make headlines because, well, what else would you expect? “Andrew Bird Makes Another Good Album”. Yea, no shit. And so it is with his newest release, Break It Yourself. Bird has once again sequestered himself in his barn in western Illinois and come out with a collection of beautifully crafted, thought provoking tunes.
From album to album Bird’s style is unmistakable but, at the same time, each offering reveals a new element of his craft. His early solo albums, Weather Systems and The Mysterious Production of Eggs, were quirky, violin heavy romps that felt like a blossoming artist experimenting with this sound. Armchair Apocrypha and 2009’s Noble Beast were more settled. The forming introducing more lush guitar melodies and the latter developing Bird’s penchant for calypso rhythms and country chord progressions. Although all of these releases had a certain mature quality to them, Break It Yourself feels like the adult of the group. On first listen the songs are immediately enjoyable but also straightforward and lacking some of the flare of his early work. However, each subsequent listen reveals that Bird, now at the wise old age of 38, manifests his creativity in subtler ways that are ultimately more rewarding.
Take, for instance, the opening track “Desperation Breeds…”. The ominous opening segment gives way to a lovely picking pattern echoed by Bird’s voice. The song becomes progressively more upbeat but the darker undertones portended by the opening bars are carried throughout the song. Ghostly voices linger in the background. Shrill strings meander through the melody. Most importantly, Bird’s lyrics are more chilling than their delivery would suggest. “We keep breeding desperation/ in this era of thieves/ who keep stealing respiration”. An excellent song if only for the catchiness (and the beautiful bass work), it is elevated by the dynamic tension between the dark lyrical and compositional undertones and the spritely guitar and violin picking. Almost every song invites analysis of this sort but, perhaps more importantly, they also incite one to simply listen and enjoy.
Break It Yourself also marks the return of Andrew Bird songs that you find yourself singing along to. As much as I liked his last two records they were, at times, too inside their own head. Sing-alongs seemed to be discouraged. This record, just in the process of writing this review, already has me belting out the hooks. “Eyeoneye” is one of the catchiest songs Bird has written in years (and also, maybe not coincidentally, the most Morissey-like he has ever sounded). “Lusitania” will subtly ingrain itself in your psyche, thanks in part to the always welcome addition of St. Vincent's Annie Clark on vocals. This is not to say that all of the album is immediately gripping. Meandering ballads abound (this is Andrew Bird after all). It’s just to say that I am glad to have some new music from Bird that is not only intellectually engaging but also just a little bit of fun.
Lyrically, this album seems to be considerably more traditional. The eccentric wordplay that characterized his earlier work is less prevalent here. I could always use a few more clever rhyming schemes but I can also see that Bird’s lyricism may have changed stylistically but the quality is still there. As with all of his releases the lyrics are steeped in allusion ( I am guessing that Lusitania refers to the British World War I ship) and dripping with imagery (“You would go mistaking clouds for mountains/ as the thing that brings the sparrows the fountains/ as the thing that makes you run for the highlands”).
So, yea, it is an Andrew Bird album. It’s great. But, as with everything he does, there is much more to the story.