Andrew Bird could have been a one-trick pony. With looping violin and full-lunged whistling, the singer-songwriter has quirks that can be effortlessly labeled as quirks, signature moves that allow for cheap jokes and soft-elbowed jabs by people who failed to really connect with the guy’s music. But as he churned out records over the years, Bird proved himself to be a relentless musician, a lyricist full of forgotten dictionary words, a violinist full of life, a songwriter full of melodies ready to stamp themselves on your brain. The real challenge he faced was how to keep all of that fresh.
After 2012’s relatively flat Break It Yourself, Bird threw himself into theme-intensive projects like the I Want to See Pulaski at Night EP in 2013, a Handsome Family covers album in 2014, and instrumental experiment Echolocations in 2015. Are You Serious is his first official full-length in three years. A market saturated with Andrew Bird releases lessens the weight of an Andrew Bird release, but this full-length is the most weighted of this decade. Are You Serious may not be as romantically orchestrated as Bird’s pillar LPs, Andrew Bird & the Mysterious Production of Eggs and Armchair Apocrypha, but it embraces a style full of heart nonetheless. Break It Yourself played out like a half-hearted record of indebted songs; Are You Serious swells with inspiration, the puffed chest of a bird outside your window with songs it has to sing, songs you want to wake up to. Though the album has its moments of treaded water, the majority welcomes back the musician whose depth, curiosity, and high-brow intellect won us over in the ‘90s.
That could be related to the fact that this is Bird’s first album since getting married and becoming a father, a fact that’s unavoidable from front to back. In a conversation with NPR, Bird talked candidly about how marriage effects the songwriting process. “You’re sitting in the same room with them as you’re writing, and when you’re sitting on the couch and you know it’s not going to last, you might … have to … encrypt things,” he says. “When you don’t have to do that anymore, it might change your writing.” A sweet sentiment, sure, but Bird’s quote is undoubtedly visible in these songs. He outlines the unspoken bond formed when he first saw his wife in “Roma Fade”, as a poppy melody dances around the words. Of course, it’s displayed in cryptic terms and narrator-shifting perspective. Love changes a man, and love changes a songwriter even more.
The record’s harmonies blend Bird’s talents together best. Guest Moses Sumney softens the otherwise harsh, rock-like production of “Capsized” into a gorgeous groove. Bird’s unmistakable voice melts against the chorus, while woodblock chirps behind him and shakers smooth out guitar reverb. Fiona Apple helps him find solace yet again on coy duet “Left Hand Kisses”. The reflective banter spouts out of the two naturally (though Bird has admitted that whiskey played a part) as they confront love’s charm and vulnerability, ultimately ending on a minor note to leave the love letter unfinished.
Over the course of 43 minutes, Bird falls into a natural groove, in part helped by guitarist Blake Mills. Summery numbers like the Lisbon-recorded “Puma” or whistle-filled “Saints Preservus” opt for easygoing jams which nonetheless display plenty of technicality. It finally feels like we’re overhearing someone sing in the shower, free of judgement and liberated by the new artistic space they find within themselves — though here through violin rather than voice. “Truth Lies Low” takes the world’s natural beauty and whips it into scenic breakdowns, encouraging Bird to pluck out a solo in the song’s final minutes, fluttering beautiful notes straight out of a modern classical song. This is the work of a seriously high-caliber musician who sounds best when feeling in real time. That energy appears again on “The New St. Jude” where joy overtakes the song’s closing segment like a Graceland-era Paul Simon cut.
Bird is set apart by the visual depth he draws with instrumentals alone. The album’s title track saunters with a slight western tinge, the singer dancing alone across the floor while guitars wink and nod, challenging one another to show their best moves on the dance floor — and busting out modest, subtle ones instead of attention-demanding solos. It’s there when he realizes the living, breathing instrumental that was “Chemical Switches” could become even more colorful with lyrics, or when he wrote “Valleys of the Young” with images of the Dust Bowl in the ’30s and mile-high storms rolling across Oklahoma plains projected onto the wall in front of him (even if its reverb-laden ending gets a little lost in itself). If the album’s final words — “I think I found someone” on two-minute lullaby “Bellevue” — didn’t suggest so, Bird is comforted by a love as warm as the sound he’s been doling out for years. It’s a fitting way to wrap, unconcerned with whatever the world may throw at him.
Bird is an instrumental painter and Are You Serious is another adventure book in his impressively detailed series. Is anyone surprised? With a child in their lap, mothers and fathers often find themselves filling the shoes of creative, nurturing, responsible adults that they didn’t necessarily believe they could be. When someone has already embodied those adjectives for decades, becoming a parent is an unwritten challenge to further round them out, and Bird — somehow in a style of relaxed contentedness — rose to that occasion.
Essential Tracks: “Truth Lies Low”, “The New St. Jude”, and “Left Hand Kisses”