I haven’t heard much from anyone about this album, which is a shame because I hear Bird’s best album since 2009’s Noble Beast.
Maybe it’s the April Fool’s Day release date. Maybe it’s the goofy cover, which is likeable once you consider the title and the release date. Maybe it’s the fact that Bird’s released oversaturated himself in the past few years with a covers album and a lo-fi experiment. Maybe it’s the fact that Bird has been doing the same thing for years and people crave novelty (but not too much!). Compare to Sufjan Stevens and Joanna Newsom, two classically trained folkies who broke out around the same time as Andrew Bird (2004-2005), who’ve been actively changing their sounds since.
Of course, maybe it’s the fact that Bird can be pretentious in his language and literary devices; the guy is no doubt, very well-read and likes to communicate it. I admit, that’s one of the reasons why Noble Beast – and to a larger degree, his entire discography so far – don’t resonate emotionally; a chief reason why he isn’t as good as Sufjan Stevens, to say nothing of Stevens’ breadth that also eclipses Bird’s. Lead single and Fiona Apple-collab “Left Handed Kisses” is a good example, with the metamusical references of “Got me writing love songs / With a common refrain like this one here”, or the out-of-nowhere coda that seems like a completely separate song that was stitched on so that Bird can go “Now it’s time for a handsome little bookend,” to the parting line “If you hesitate, you’ll hear the click of the receiver” that ends the song. Then, the title track that immediately follows does this bit: “Used to be so wilfully obtuse, or is the word abstruse? / Semantics like a noose, get out your dictionaries.” Pitchfork’s Stacey Anderson describes both as “self-congratulatory in [Bird’s] cleverness.”
I agree, but both songs are worthy additions to the Best Of compilation I will one day assemble for this man, the former because of its meta-ness and the latter despite those two lines (which isn’t the first time Bird has done that; remember “Fake Palindromes”’s “They run you hot and cold like a rheostat I mean a thermostat”?). In fact, it took me a while to realize those elements of “Left Handed Kisses” because I was at first puzzled by the surprisingly muscular-sounding acoustic guitar and subsequently won over by how refreshing it was to hear the girl do the harder, harsher and more theatrical vocals to balance the boy’s sweeter one (the reverse of typical boy-girl duets), not to mention how much of a treat it is it to hear both indie stars on the same song. And “Are You Serious” just breezes by thanks to the great melodies in both the choruses and the verses. And that’s without mentioning the extra colours of both: the noticeable click-clack percussion of the former, and the same that’s buried in the latter.
In fact, most of this album follows suit. Andrew Bird has always had an impressive command of several instruments, not to mention whistling, such that he can get away with not stylistically changing every album. On this album, he claims it’s the result of “the strongest melodies and the strongest ideas that occurred to me over a three to four year period, distilled,” and I believe him because it shows!. Check out the bluesy guitar riff powering “Capsized,” or the melody of the fast-paced “Roma Fade” (my first thought was Lou Reed’s “Wagon Wheel” for the similarly indelible choruses, and the word “Rearrange” but at least this one is kinder in its use of the word); the descending vocal and plucked string hook of “Puma”. Elsewhere, gets a bit more ambition with the minimal and oddly distorted guitar of “Truth Lies Low” or the revolving door of sections of “Saint Preservus” (whose structure is not unlike certain Joanna Newsom songs…just shorter).
Okay, so it’s not perfect – I really dislike the guitar tone/hook of “The New Saint Jude,” and “Valleys of the Young” is never-ending plodding bombast; “Bellevue” is a throwaway other than its middle section where it picks up and employs some lovely counterpoint – but Bird has never been perfect.