Posted by: Jeff | March 19, 2012

Album Review: Andrew Bird – “Break It Yourself”

Andrew Bird – Break It Yourself [Buy Here]

Mom + Pop
Release Date: March 6, 2012
Grade: A-

Andrew Bird – “Danse Caribe”

It’s always a shock that Andrew Bird hasn’t enjoyed the sort of widespread popularity that his natural musical talent might suggest.  With a prolific catalogue (‘Break It Yourself’ is his 7th solo LP, and he recorded three more as Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire) and an invite to jam with Yo Yo Ma, there’s no question that he’s a gifted and innovative musician.  In fact, his ability to carry a tune by whistle earned him a prominent spot on the soundtrack of last year’s The Muppets.

Among the NPR set, he’s a household name, but his popularity hasn’t spread much further than the high-brow and hipster demographics that prefer vinyl record players to iPods.  Admittedly, it does take a certain active engagement with the music to fully appreciate much of Bird’s output, with such emphasis on complex song structures that could never be accurately described as earworms and on lyrical writing that celebrates wordplay and verbosity.  Perhaps one needs to see Bird perform live, where he calmly and masterfully loops violin, percussion, guitar, whistling, and vocals into a seamless mix.  Watching him work, it’s clear that he is something of a craftsman, and the method of innovation is nearly as important as the output.

It’s perhaps remarkable then that the innovation and experimentation congeal on record into thoughtful pop songs.  On ‘Break It Yourself’, Bird’s tinkering has led to greater seriousness than on previous records, and his writing is a reflection of this.  The album features little of the fun whimsy present on previous Bird albums (e.g. “Fitz and the Dizzy Spells”, “Fake Palindromes”, etc.).  Instead, Bird’s lyrics explore politics and philosophy, with reflections on lost memory and perception.  The result is an album that feels heavier in its impact, but upon repeated listens reveals the beauty of its structure.

“Desperation Breeds…”, the lead track of the album, begins with light plucks of violin and a choral background before Bird arrives with guitar and contemplative lyrics about the state of our natural environment (“We keep breeding desperation / In this era of thieves / Who keep stealing respiration / From the tenderest of trees”).  By the end of the track, Bird has unleashed his arsenal of violin, jazzy guitar, plucks, and pitch-perfect whistling.  Bird is at his best when creating dizzying heights of instrumentation, and on “Desperation” and album standout “Danse Caribe”, the listener is practically carried away.  When he intones on “Caribe”, “there you go mistaking clouds for mountains” it’s no wonder – even a companion video to a live performance of the song features prominently dizzying aerial footage.

“Caribe” is the folksiest Bird song in some time, and features him using his violin in more traditional fiddling style.  Lead single “Eyeoneye” features a guitar melody first used on a song excerpt dubbed “Oh, Baltimore” that Bird debuted in live settings as early as 2010.  Ever the meticulous tinkerer, the melody is now amped up and central to a track that is fairly standard indie rock.  “Eye” is the most radio ready track on the album, but it is also something of an aberration from the light instrumentation on the rest of the record.  It’s a fine track, but sandwiched between the delicate beauty of “Give It Away” and “Lazy Projector”, it feels out of place, a lone misstep on the album.

“Orpheo Looks Back” is a wonderfully evocative title, and Bird’s lyrics recall the famous Greek myth of Orpheus, who, having bewitched the Gods with his mournful music after the death of his beautiful wife Eurydice, was allowed to travel into the Underworld to retrieve her, on the condition that he never once look back or lose her forever.  Orpheus of course looked back once his lovely Eurydice was in tow, and Bird mines this tragic story of love and loss and sets it amid layers of haunting violin, whistles, and guitar.  It’s classic Bird – appealing both in musical construction and the nerdiness of his lyrical underpinning.

The filtered electric violin plucks of “Near Death Experience Experience” are wonderful, and the female vocal counterpoint to Bird is a welcome element on several tracks, including “Lusitania”, a duet with the wonderful Annie Clark (of St. Vincent).  “Lusitania” is a beautifully slow track that explores the lost lessons of history amidst Bird’s whistling and a lovely vocal performance by Clark.

‘Break It Yourself’ is a beautiful record, and one that rewards repeated listens.  It doesn’t quite match the effortless beauty of 2010’s ‘Noble Beast’ or the whimsical fun of prior albums, but it is a mature record that reflects Bird’s spirited sonic innovation and continued growth as a song-writer.  The addition of instrumental tracks, including “Polynation” and “Behind the Barn”, as well as the epic 8-minute experimentation of “Hole in the Ocean Floor” round out a great album, and a fine addition to the superb Andrew Bird canon.

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