Words by Jacob Barron
I read somewhere that when he writes lyrics, Andrew Bird pays as much attention to the sound of a word as he does to its definition. He sings things that sound good coming out of his mouth at the right time, and allows the words to sort of coalesce into their own meaning. I’m sure there’s quite a bit more to it than that, but it certainly would explain why Bird is able to sell lyrics like “ See a sea anemone / the enemy see a sea anemone / and that’ll be the end of me“ in Noble Beast‘s “Anonanimal.” Nothing is off limits, no matter how patently silly it might seem, and Bird‘s above average vocabulary lets him craft some extremely compelling wordplay that usually ends up containing something weirdly, undeniably moving.
All musicians do this, to a degree. They take what they know, both musically and lyrically, and they cobble it together into a cohesive, evocative product. It may usually be driven more by the need to convey a particular feeling than to create a particular sound, but the processes are similar. The difference between Bird and his colleagues is that no one, and I mean no one, has as deep of a well to draw from as he does. Scientists should study Andrew Bird to see if his brilliance can’t be bottled and sold, and should that ever happen, I’ll be the first in line to buy a case of Andrew’s Bird-Food. Lots of people know lots of things, and lots of musicians know lots of music, but Bird is able to draw on it all, and filter it into a uniquely satisfying style that’s all his own.
That’s why I’ve never been comfortable labeling him an “indie rock” musician. His music is just too broad and unique to fit into the genre, despite how expansively “indie rock” is often defined. Sometimes the heavens just open up and a prodigy falls out, and being just such a wonder, it’d be a shame to lump Andrew Bird in with the great unwashed, failing to recognize how rare and exceptional he is.
If anyone ever doubted his genius, Break It Yourself should finally put those doubts to rest. No longer satisfied with taking a free-associative approach to just his lyrics anymore, on Break It Yourself, Bird displays his encyclopedic knowledge of musical genres, and manages to find common threads between styles that are rarely seen on the same continent, let alone within the same song. It’s like he’s plucking ideas and genre tropes out of a really big hat, and gluing them together at random. But the remarkable part of it is that he’s able to sew them all together so tightly that you can’t even see the stitches.
“Danse Caribe” might be the best, clearest example of this. As the title implies, this is a song for islanders, a sleepy, smiling tune that starts by swaying like a hammock strung between two palms. Then there’s a lively breakdown, where Bird‘s plucked strings manage to sound like oil drums, and then the whole thing suddenly becomes a hoe down. The violin opens up, bluegrass grows right out of the sand, and without a change in tempo or timbre, the song whisks you away to a gleefully crowded barn. And this isn’t just a dispassionate experiment in musical multiculturalism; Bird manages to make this jump seem not only logical, but also an absurd amount of fun.
Genre-crossing moments like that occur throughout the album, from the gypsy interludes of “Orpheo Looks Back” to the ambiance of the album’s breathtaking penultimate tune, “Hole in the Ocean Floor.” Lyrically, the same unique gems that have become his hallmark appear again and again, especially in the elegant ballad “Sifters.” While Bird has always relied on the physical world for an endless supply of metaphors (“Hole in the Ocean Floor” is only the most recent example), he also reaches back into world history with “Lusitania,” a duet with St. Vincent, and even good old fashioned Andrew Bird history, tweaking a line from Armchair Apocrypha‘s “Armchairs,” as he sings “history repeats itself / and time’s a crooked bow” in “Lazy Projector,” a song about the slippery nature of memory that, in a way, serves as a thesis statement for the whole album.
That’s because, in this case, Bird is the “Lazy Projector,” taking scenes from his own life, the life of the planet, and the life of music as an art form, and displaying them as he sees them. He highlights certain portions and buries others, bridging the gap between what’s personal and what’s public by mingling his own tastes and experiences with things that belong to all of us. Break It Yourself is the world as only he sees it, and the reason why I can’t classify Andrew Bird is because I’m not Andrew Bird. The man is his own genre, but just because that’s the case doesn’t mean it’s alienating, or anything other than a joy to hear. Break It Yourself, especially, could easily qualify as the best “indie rock” or “baroque pop” album of 2012, but it’s more accurate to say that it’s the best, and probably only, “Andrew Bird“ album of 2012. And for this reason, it is not to be missed.
12 out of 10 50lb.-bags of Andrew’s Bird-Food. Pick up the new album over at Insound.