Andrew Bird‘s musical voice is such that you’ll never mistake one of his albums for anyone else’s. From the pinpoint whistling to the epic violin swathes, there’s a surgical precision that can’t be matched and a uniquely heady, intellectual mindset to match it. Break It Yourself, Bird’s ninth solo disc, sounds, well, a lot like an archetype Andrew Bird record, which is to say that it has flashes of musical and lyrical depth that few can match. The hooks don’t quite sink in as far as some of those on past records, and the diversity doesn’t quite match either, but the depth of the intelligent, philosophic experience grows after each listen.
Though the conventions and flourishes have lithely mutated from swing to folk to indie pop, Bird’s music seems to situate itself on a spectrum with one end representing the mad genius alone at a loop pedal and the other with an intricately orchestrated backing band. The immaculate genre-jukebox of The Swimming Hour (with then backing band Bowl of Fire) is a prime example of the latter, while the swirling violin clouds of his first solo album, Weather Systems, the former.
Break It Yourself largely lingers close to the loop pedal, a batch of tunes that blends Bird’s razor-sharp lyrics with morphing walls of strings that tend toward the low-slung, even melancholic. Rather than the grandiose, glistening pop of his last few discs, this new record plays on muted tones, ballads that work into your subconscious rather than overwhelming it. It might seem a bit unfair to ask a disc to have emotional depth, biting lyrics, and unforgettable hooks, but Bird is one of few who is capable of the task (achieved on the epic & The Mysterious Production of Eggs).
While recent albums have given over to more and more guitar, Break It Yourself ushers the violin back to the forefront. Opening track “Desperation Breeds” is Bird in a nutshell, polysyllabic lyrics referencing scientific theories about the future as related to fading honeybee populations (seriously, this dude is smart), skyscraper whistling, looped instrumental strikes, and a violin solo that sounds like a bee without coming off as cheesy as that sounds. Expressive violin tones don’t end there, though; with the distortion added on “Danse Carribe”, it comes off like a steel drum, or a jazz guitar on “Give It Away”. While the overall mood remains sleepy throughout the disc, the tracks differentiate in seemingly minor tonal shifts.
While the music shows Bird retreating into soundscapes, the lyrics largely feature the narrator moving into landscapes, contemplating the rest of humanity (a theme enforced strongly by the fluid, subdued music). “Hole in the Ocean Floor” looms and lingers for over eight minutes, rife with talk of crickets and others among “God’s creatures.” Earlier, “Give It Away” talks of a “nation’s worthless currency,” coupled with a disinterest in charts and graphs, constantly moving towards a question of what human society truly values.
Bird references his own catalog more succinctly and interestingly than almost any other indie musician (save perhaps Spencer Krug). The first lines of “Eyeoneye” pun on the homophones eye and I, referencing the change from Weather System’s “I” to Armchair Apocrypha‘s “Imitosis”: “Go ahead and congratulate yourself/give yourself a hand/the hand is yours/and the eye that eyes itself is your eye.” Perhaps the most straightforward pop song structure on the album, the track keeps the philosophic tone of introspection, Bird pushing the borders of inspecting himself while also noting that “you’re getting too close to your soul.” The pivotal line, though, is when he reminds himself that we all need some help, the most cerebral indie pop songwriter finding solace in company.
The introspection continues on “The Lazy Projector”, the singer wondering aloud where reality lies and how perception affects it. The whole thing sounds so convoluted and intricate, but the imagery works, the song unfolds naturally, and everything wraps the listener up in a warm, cozy blanket, reading the book of Bird’s ever-intriguing thought process. The song is a mellow, reflective affair, one that probes similar topics to their core, the perfect soundtrack for a lazy Sunday afternoon, a cup of tea on the back porch.
Essential Tracks: “Eyeoneye”, “Desperation Breeds”, and “Danse Carribe”
Feature artwork by Drew Litowitz.