Artist: Andrew Bird
Album: Are You Serious
In Brief: While Bird’s unique blend of violin, guitar, whistling, and live looping still has a tendency to hint at brilliance more often than he actually demonstrates it, the solid string of performances at the front of this album and the intriguing songwriting throughout remind me why he’s continued to pique my curiosity for over 10 years now.
I wish that my level of excitement about listening to an Andrew Bird record matched my level of respect for his musical talents. In addition to being proficient on the violin, guitar, xylophone, and probably a few other instruments I’m forgetting to name, as well as being an excellent whistler (which adds an eerie yet whimsical effect to several of his songs), he has a knack for writing unconventional song lyrics that spark my curiosity at nearly every turn, and he seems like a level-headed and all-around likeable fellow. Perhaps it’s a self-imposed desire on his part to not be too show-offy or too obviously pining for a radio hit that keeps the bulk of his work more subdued, requiring the listener to dig at it a little bit to really gel with his style. He’s capable of conjuring up some excellent rhythmic hooks and more urgent choruses at times (and trust me, it’s a real treat to watch him rebuild such a song from the ground up in a live setting with the innovative use of a looping pedal), but he chooses not to write most of his songs in this mode, which means large stretches of your average Andrew Bird record are going to be more mellow, ballad-type affairs, sometimes taking quite a while to get to the big, beautiful payoff, or sometimes deliberately subverting the listener’s expectation of a climax entirely. It can be fascinating from the perspective of wondering why an artist makes the decisions that they do and how that sets them apart from other artists, and honestly I can’t think of anyone else whose overall approach or personality strongly reminds me of Andrew Bird. But I’ve gotta be honest, after listening to his records for over ten years since I first stumbled across The Mysterious Production of Eggs, sometimes I feel like I’m studying his music more than I’m actually enjoying it.
Bird’s latest album, Are You Serious, doesn’t seem at first glance like it’s a huge step in any new direction. Bird is quite comfortable at this point doing his own quirky thing, but his sound has evolved subtly enough over the course of several albums that I generally don’t feel like he’s repeating himself. I realized after not too many listens that there was something more urgent about this record, especially in its front half – Bird seems to be a little bit more comfortable hooking you in with a sexy groove or a catchy chorus than he used to, but it’s not a radical overhaul, just a slight course correction. Later in the album, things do get a bit more subtle and mysterious as they always have, but the stretches of songs that don’t engage me just don’t seem nearly as long this time, which I could possibly credit to the shorter track listing – 11 tracks compared to 14 each on Mysterious Production, Noble Beast, and Break It Yourself, which puts this album in the same neighborhood as Armchair Apocrypha in terms of the attention span it hope the listener will have. And that’s not to say that Bird should always simply record fewer songs – it’s just that a higher percentage of them tend to be interesting when he does this. Break It Yourself was notable for a few “rockier” tracks, and Are You Serious certainly has a few in that vein, but the stylistic twists and turns from one track to the next seem more purposeful this time around, making the album flow better as a whole. Whether he’s noodling around on the violin during an instrumental break, or plucking away at it to create the rhythmic base for a song, or just pounding power chords on the good old electric guitar, I’m engaged by the sound of it a lot more frequently than I was by these very same things in the past.
As for lyrical content, the title Are You Serious is a bit of an interesting choice. Note the lack of a question mark – he’s not even really asking if someone is serious; it’s more like a flat expression of exasperation at someone saying or doing something absurd, and knowing they probably are serious, and too blinded by their seriousness to realize how silly it is. Even though that title initially seems to connote skepticism, a lot of these songs seem to come from a more sincere and personal place than a lot of his past work did. Untangling the meaning of an Andrew Bird song is never an easy task, but just knowing that it’s the first album of his own songs he’s released since getting married and starting a family helps to inform some of the stories here that can turn on a dime from whimsical to tragic and right back again. Maybe he’s asking himself if he’s serious on some of these tracks, and he’s surprised to find out that he is.
For my money, this is the strongest opener I’ve heard on a Bird record thus far. The dual violin/electric guitar riff, and the catchy drum groove, tell you right upfront that Bird wanted to create something a little more instantly catchy, and while I don’t mean that as a slight to his more pensive material, it’s good to have something like this to rope listeners in at the beginning before delving into the moodier stuff. Interestingly, the lyrics are some of the moodiest on the entire record, as they find Bird reeling from a breakup that seemed to hit him out of nowhere. The things one might look to for comfort, such as rebounding to another relationship (“spoon dirty laundry”, as he puts it), don’t seem to help it to sting any less. “Sky’s falling, nobody’s on your side.” The second verse is odd even by Bird’s standards, as it brings in this Jesus/holy ghost talk out of nowhere, which I now understand to be a parallel to the creepy feeling he would get from old-timey spirituals about death that tried to offer comfort but only made the whole idea sound more ominous. It’s not the first time we’ve heard him make sardonic, aside comments on the subject of religion, but it is one of the most bizarre. Still, it’s a unique and really well put together breakup anthem, that sets the stage for a more permanent relationship that he seems to fall into later in the album.
2. Roma Fade
This one’s immediately so captivating, with its whistled melodic hook and the violin coming into copy it, swaying along to the rhythm in a rather seductive fashion. I don’t mean that to suggest that the song is overtly sexual, because it’s not, but there’s something incredibly alluring about the combination of confidence and mystique that can be heard in his performance here. He makes the best possible use of the violin, both in the traditional bowed method of playing it and his trademark rhythmic plucking, and it might just be the most ear-wormy thing he’s concocted since “Skin Is, My” on the Eggs album all those years ago. Here, the very public life of some unnamed celebrity is put under the microscope, and Bird seems to take the quantum physics view, where him observing her life, and her observing his, changes who they both are. My favorite line in this bizarre metaphysical exchange is probably “Here’s where gentlemen avert their eyes/Maybe she’s a gentleman in disguise.” It reminds me of some of the crueler rumors that have circulated about the private life of Lady Gaga, who’s an artist I don’t listen to personally, but who I know has had some rather pointed things to say about the effects of extreme fame on an artist merely trying to honestly express herself.
3. Truth Lies Low
This more laid-back, mid-tempo number hits another home run, largely due to another alluring chord progression, one which sounds at first like it’s going to lead something stuttering and repetitive due to the oddly muted guitar chords at the beginning, but it opens up quite beautifully if you give it a minute or so. Bird’s lyrics are once again in top form – the meaning is a little murkier here, but if I had to take a stab, I’d say the song’s about the opposite of a famous person’s public persona, instead addressing the things we do and say over the Internet, thinking we can keep them a secret while they damage the lives of the other people we’re anonymously tearing down. The final verse is probably the crowning touch: “Vitriol from their pens flows/Anonymously their hate crows/But at least they care enough to let you know.” Throughout the bulk of the song, and especially in the bridge, there’s some absolutely gorgeous violin soloing, the kind of thing you’d normally hear on one of Bird’s much more abstract compositions, and this is the sort of thing I’ve been wanting more of from him from the beginning – for those moments of instrumental virtuosity to not be more fully present within some of the otherwise more rhythmic, riff-based, structured songs instead of just the free-flowing instrumentals.
It’s weird to think that one of Bird’s most personal and heartfelt songs also seems like one of his wackiest and most outlandish when you first listen to it. There’s talk of a woman being radioactive, and insisting she’s not a girl, she’s a puma, despite rumors to the contrary. I thought this might have been some sort of a bizarre ode to the Thundercats or something at first, but then I read that the inspiration for the song was actually when Bird’s wife was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and had to udnergo chemotherapy. It was heartbreaking, but seeing herself as this tough feline creature instead of a hapless victim was what helped the couple to power through it. A light, but upbeat groove, and liberal amounts of violin plucking add to the overall sense of whimsy, and while it isn’t as incessantly catchy as the songs that came before it, I have to admire Bird for covering such a sensitive topic with just the right balance of grace and sheer audacity. The final, reverb-drenched violin note after this one comes to a halt always throws me off guard, because I keep thinking it’s part of the following song when it isn’t.
5. Chemical Switches
This one’s more of a subtle acoustic track, mostly just Bird finger-picking the guitar and whistling a bit, with the violin playing a background role. It puts the lyrics into focus a little more than usual, which isn’t a bad thing, but this is the sort of territory that large sections of Bird’s albums usually inhabit, so I’m glad he held off until track 5 to dim the lights this time around. The bulk of the song has a sense of restrained beauty to it, even though it sounds like Bird is singing about some sort of impending doom awaiting us if someone flips the wrong switch and throws the planet’s environment into chaos. It wouldn’t be the first time the musical and lyrics moods in one of his songs deliberately clashed, I guess. Near the end, he just sort of gives up on the nicely flowing tempo he’d previously established, making the final, slower verse seem a bit out of context, and then the song just sort of ends. Bummer.
6. Left Handed Kisses
This will probably be the most talked about song on the record, owing to it being a duet with Fiona Apple. I can’t say I’ve followed Apple’s career all that closely, but she seems to have a taste for oddball indie folk and baroque pop music, and a strange affinity for violinists, judging from the fact that the last time I heard her voice, she was doing an Everly Brothers cover duet with Sara Watkins. This song is a much more low-key affair, mostly notable fit its witty lyrics. You could consider it a “meta-love song”, since it’s about a guy trying to write a love song, fretting over his tendency to fall back on cliches, and getting totally called out by a woman for his “fifty-cent words” not matching his actions, rendering his declaration of love rather anemic in the process. There are some beautiful moments of sarcasm, irony, and self-reference in the lyrics, but the music, which is mostly centered around simple acoustic guitar strumming, honestly does nothing for me, and that makes me feel like the song isn’t nearly as much of a highlight as it wants to be.
7. Are You Serious
The title track, as you might expect from its titular question being posed without a question mark, is full of wry wordplay and clever witticisms. See if you can wrap your head around this one: “Used to be so willfully obtuse, or is the word abstruse?/Semantics like a noose, get out your dictionaries.” Somehow he’s able to make self-referential puns on his own tendency to use the aforementioned “fifty-cent words”. I love it. I’m not quite sure who he’s addressing here – it sounds like it could be an audience member just there to enjoy the music who isn’t engaging it at a deeper level, trying to explain that this is his real life on display and the audience should at least respect that even if they can’t fully understand it, but that’s a wild guess on my part. Musically, this one follows the template established by “Puma” in the sense that it’s mildly upbeat and full of fun little plucked violin bits and electric guitar interjections. Unfortunately it doesn’t quite have the driving force behind it to really support the level of dry wit that Bird injects into the song. So despite the musical showmanship on display, the song can seem to just sort of harmlessly float by when it could have really sunk its teeth in and left a mark.
8. Saints Preservus
This one almost feels like a lost track from Eggs, due to the eerie, whistled intro, the light violin plucking that supports the verses, and the light, melodic ringing of the xylophone in the pre-chorus, leading to a more dramatic chorus. Songs like “Measuring Cups” and “Banking on a Myth” that wound through several twists and turns, ensuring their unpredictability, come to mind. And I sort of enjoyed the various pieces of those songs, but I wasn’t sure how well they hung together. That’s sort of how I feel here. He’s doing a lot of different things that are subtly brilliant in their own right, but the song changes moods so often that it threatens to drag the entire thing to a screeching halt. It says a lot that despite all the changes within the song, it took several listens for any of it to really stand out to me. It seems to lack a strong central identity.
9. The New Saint Jude
The fun, syncopated violin and electric guitar that give this track its danceable rhythm remind me very much of the conclusion of “Danse Caribe” from Break it Yourself, which was probably my favorite track on that record. St. Jude sure gets around in terms of being a muse for songwriters – Anberlin and Florence + The Machine have both offered their take on the “patron saint of lost causes”, and here Bird finds some sort of joy in surrendering whatever cause he was fighting for: “Ever since I gave up hope, I’ve been feeling so much better.” The whole song might be borrowing religious language for its own subversive purposes, but my favorite example of this – and quite possibly my favorite line on the entire record – comes in the second verse: “And this we shall celebrate/In our finest regalia/Like a choir of shining angels/A congregation of Mahalias.” I mean, what other songwriter would think to rhyme “regalia” with “Mahalia”? The song suffers a bit when its bridge slows down to a standard 4/4 beat – I feel like the worst thing you can do after introducing such a fun, up-tempo rhythm is interrupt it with something comparatively ordinary – but then it comes right back again at the end of the song, so I can’t complain too much. It’s a triple that could have been a home run.
10. Valleys of the Young
Now I really hate to bag on a song that I can tell is one of the most deeply personal on the record. But I thought this song was incredibly tedious when I first heard it,and despite delving in and really coming to appreciate its lyrics, I still find that listening to it tries my patience. The slow and monotonous rhythm – largely hammering on the same, uninspired electric guitar chords – is a big part of that, but even within that monotony, Bird seems to interrupt the rhythmic flow of his own chorus in ways that throw the listener off the beat of the song, but that don’t seem terribly inventive or surprising in light of interesting rhythmic things he does elsewhere. It just sounds like he overlaid a bit of his quirky whistling and violin playing onto a late album filler track from some late 90s slacker rock band. The central question of the song – whether he’s abandoning his identity by leaving behind the seeming utopia of his youth and bringing a child into the world – is one that deserves a musical backdrop that doesn’t make me want to immediately tune out. Perhaps the most gut-wrenching lyric on the entire album shows up in the final verse: “Now you’re going on 64/Driving down 65, to the hospital/To see if your adult son will survive or not/After taking those pills in the parking lot.” That’s basically every parent’s worst nightmare, and the song is about whether a man has the courage to spend the rest of his life with fears of not being able to totally protect his own child from harm. I’d easily give these lyrics an A if I were just grading them on paper. But I listen to music because, well, there’s actual music, and especially coming from a musician this talented, I expect the sound of a song to be interesting in and of itself.
This short song is really just a coda, a snippet that Bird apparently further fleshed out according to some who have seen it perform line, but that was left as a simple statement on the record. After all the irony and worry and hope and hand-wringing he’s been through on this record, he’s at peace here, having found someone who seems to meet his every need. It’s a surprisingly calm and sincere resolution, with the title never appearing in the song but possibly being a bit of wordplay on “Belles”, the title of the closing instrumental track from Break It Yourself. Musically, the song seems barely there at first, just floating by on quiet guitar chords, but it briefly breaks into a nice little musical fanfare full of bright chords and a short violin solo. The song’s purposefully incomplete, and knowing that there was initially more to it sort of bugs me, but it isn’t inherently bad, just not that interesting as a song unto itself.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Roma Fade $2
Truth Lies Low $1.75
Chemical Switches $.75
Left Handed Kisses $.75
Are You Serious $1
Saints Preservus $.50
The New Saint Jude $1.25
Valleys of the Young $.50
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: