Front Page Reviews & AIR
Andrew Bird - Break it Yourself
I should begin by saying that, while I’ve been familiar with Andrew Bird for a number of years, I’ve never really been what you’d call a “fan.” His talent has always been undeniable – he is a violin virtuoso who also plays guitar, keyboard, glockenspiel, and just about anything else, including being an impeccable whistler to boot. It’s easy to see how his talent and quirky songwriting have built him a following over his impressively long career. But I always kind of viewed him much in the way I used to view Beck: a guy with a ton of talent and really interesting ideas, obviously smart but possibly not much to say. His fans will tell you how much they love his “smart lyrics,” with their vocabulary words, references to science, and microscopic attention to detail. There’s obviously an audience for that, but I always found myself trying to dig below these surface pleasures and find out what (if anything) was underneath. There were some standout tracks like “Darkmatter” (from Armchair Apocrypha) which seemed to move beyond science-as-motif toward a true existential question of the nature of the soul. But too often, I found myself turned off by the wordiness of songs with titles like “A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left” (from The Mysterious Production of Eggs). All along, however, it was clear that the appeal of Andrew Bird lay in his acceptance of his quirks and his willingness to follow them wherever they led, whistling all the way.
What makes Break it Yourself Bird’s best record to date is that he manages to hold on to these things without overthinking them, to be himself without being precious, as he digs deeper in his writing in a way that is uniquely his own. Some of this may have to do with the process. The songs were written and recorded over a short period of time at Bird’s barn studio in the cornfields of Illinois. Everything was played live by Bird and his touring band, with very minimal help. While Bird’s previous records had involved him overdubbing a number of instruments (sometimes creating string sections of himself) and tweaking the songs until “perfect,” Break It Yourself’s off-the-cuff style was something new and inspirational for Bird, resulting in a loose feel that was more like his acclaimed live shows.
The approach seemed to help the songwriting as well. Freed from the need to hone every word and every part, the result is a refreshing mixture of ideas, sketches and brilliance that never get too self-serious or self-consciously comical. What comes through more than anything is the sense of wonder that Bird has always been getting at, but had never quite translated. Fans will be familiar with his references to nature, his attention to the details of bees or ocean tides, but here we can finally feel it. We are drawn in to his world, to his imagination, to the wonder. Songs like “Desperation Breeds” and the stunning “Hole in the Ocean Floor” are a testament to this achievement. In addition, Bird also offers upgrades on his familiar themes of wistful thought-experiments (“Sifters”) and existential questioning (“Lazy Projector”), while adding a beautifully playful depth to his longstanding use of historical/literary references (“Lusitania” and “Orpheo Looks Back”). Sprinkle in the loose, Morrissey-style pop of “Eyeoneye” and three wistful interludes, and you end up with Bird’s most varied and complete record.
At 38, Andrew Bird may just be entering his prime. Break It Yourself promises to satisfy long-time fans as well as make him some new ones (like yours truly). While there are a few moments of unnecessary indulgence (I’m thinking of the over-long Phish-style interludes on the otherwise great “Give it Away”), they can be forgiven in the name of the freedom that made this record what it is. It’s as though Bird has freed himself from the need to feel clever or witty, and has genuinely achieved those things by not trying to. Hopefully he can maintain this freedom when he goes to make his next record. And hopefully he’ll keep that barn.