Artist: Andrew Bird
Album: My Finest Work Yet
In Brief: While the songwriting on this album certainly features some of Bird’s finest words yet, on a musical level it seems to be mostly in the same comfort zone he’s established on his last several albums. That’s not a bad thing, particularly when Bird gets more playful with his rhythms, or leaves space for a bit of his trademark whistling and noodling on the violin. But as always, there’s the issue of certain songs being too low-key to fully deliver on the virtuoso instrumental talent we all know Bird possesses. This has the side effect of helping us to focus more on the lyrics, perhaps… but I’d really love to see an album where Bird really goes for broke on both fronts.
Show of hands: How many of you get irritated when a favorite artist makes lofty promises about an upcoming album, telling you it’s the best thing they’ve ever made and/or that they’ve left some classic album of theirs in the dust that you consider a personal favorite? I know it bugs me. Not that it can’t ever be true – there are some artists who manage to put out their best work pretty deep into their careers. But usually I figure this is the sort of thing that gets said to drum up publicity for a record. The artist is generally too close to their most recent work to evaluate it objectively – and I suppose it’s a good sign if they’re still that attached to it after finally finishing the album, rather than thoroughly sick of it and just glad to move on. But more often than not, history doesn’t end up supporting these kinds of claims. A little distance from a work is usually required for fans to determine whether it is truly their best… otherwise you’ve got something brand new being placed in direct competition with something fans have an extreme amount of nostalgia for, and that’s not a fair fight.
I bring this up because it’s a situation that I’m pretty sure Andrew Bird must be hinting at with the title of his latest album, My Finest Work Yet. He may well wholeheartedly believe that it is the best work he’s done to date, but the guy’s got a wry enough sense of humor that it’s also pretty easy to take this as a tongue-in-cheek statement. Especially when you consider the cover image, which implies that he put so much work into making the album that it literally killed him, it begs the question of why an artist wouldn’t put the same amount of work into everything they do. And I don’t know Andrew Bird to be the kind of guy who just tosses off new material without giving it much thought. He’s meticulous. He’s clever. His records are often quite exquisitely crafted, with him playing several roles as he layers the sounds of his guitar, violin, glockenspiel, and of course his idiosyncratic whistling. Lyrically, the guy’s no slouch, either. He has a very dry wit and a penchant for wordplay that makes a lot of his songs walk a very fine line between subtle comedy and stark socio-political commentary, and yet he never comes across as a novelty act. His albums have their fair share of slow-moving material that often doesn’t catch my interest nearly as much as the more upbeat, rhythmic stuff that lends itself well to the live looping he’s known for in concert. But even on the songs that kind of bore me, I never feel like he’s phoning it. So what could he have possibly done on this new LP (which, depending on what you consider an “album” and whether his work with Bowl of Fire should be considered part of his solo discography, could be anywhere from his eighth to his fifteenth album) that is so dramatically different from everything he’s done up to this point? The answer, quite honestly, is nothing much. He’s just doing it with a bit of a higher batting average than his usual.
I feel like Andrew Bird’s been on a bit of an upward swing in the latter half of the 2010s. I’ve been following him since 2005’s The Mysterious Production of Eggs, but for most of that time I’ve found his albums rather challenging to take in as a whole, up until 2016’s Are You Serious, which pared down some of his more excessive tendencies and ended up being, at least in my opinion, his most focused record to date. My Finest Work Yet continues that trend, with a pair of Bird’s most stunning singles right upfront and a brief set of ten songs, with no filler or interludes or non-song-related instrumental sketches of any kind. And not that I minded some of those asides on past records, but I’ll admit it’s nice to listen to an Andrew Bird album and not keep having to check the tracklisting to remind myself which of the many slower songs I’m currently listening to. This one has a small handful of starker ballads, but they don’t threaten to overtake the tracklisting like they did on a record such as Noble Beast. Ironically enough, there are a few tracks here where I could swear Bird is deliberately calling back to songs from Noble Beast, which is now a decade old, and perhaps making other subtle self-references that I haven’t yet picked up on. This one feels like a retrospective of all the things Bird has tried so far, in a way that mostly emphasizes his strengths. If you’re new to Andrew Bird, I could easily recommend that you start here, and then you’d have a useful reference point to go back to any of his other albums with.
Now while Bird’s idiosyncratic signature style has always been the first thing to jump out at me on any of his records, I have to say that it would have gotten really old by this point if he weren’t such a fine lyricist. A few tracks on this record that I can honestly say are downright brilliant remind me that his sharp penmanship hasn’t dulled with age. Though it’s never directly addressed by name, the Trump administration has certainly left its mark on Bird’s dry wit, as he spends a few of these songs pondering what it takes to effect social change and why we’re often apathetic about it until it’s too late, and why we’re sometimes tempted to give up altogether and let it be someone else’s problem. Privilege and entitlement lurk beneath the double meanings present in a few of these songs, and it’s to Bird’s credit that his twisty, turny phrasings roll off the tongue so effortlessly and playfully than it never feels like the listener is being lectured. As much as I’m prone to geeking out over a tasty violin solo that says as much with the spaces it leaves in between the notes as the notes itself, or a catchy, jazzy rhythm built on the staccato plucking of that very same instrument’s strings, I like that this is all there to enhance the power of his words, rather than to distract from an inability to communicate. There have been times in the past where I felt like Bird was holding back musically in order to put his lyrics front and center – and I may still feel that way about one or two tracks on this record that are more ho-hum. But Bird at his best sees no conflict between the lyrics connecting with the listener and the music taking them on a whimsical flight of fancy. That’s what I think is likely to keep My Finest Work Yet in competition with some higher-profile releases that I’ve been strongly anticipating this year, when it comes time to round up my favorites at the end of 2019. Whether you’ve been familiar with Bird since the Squirrel Nut Zippers days, or you’re genuinely just hearing of him for the first time now, I hope this record will have a similar effect on you.
Every once in a blue moon, a song comes along that I realize is so brilliantly written, I’m intimidated to write about it, because I feel like it would take a graduate-level thesis to unpack all of its nuances. That’s high praise, for a song that I felt upon the first few listens was a fun, lightly bouncy number in line with a lot of Bird’s past work, but that didn’t jump out at me musically, aside from Bird’s iconic whistling – which arguably provides a stronger hook than the actual chorus of the song. Once I took the time to really soak in this one, I started to notice just how well Bird’s chosen metaphor worked, as he described a person frustrated with being a meaningless cog in the system as though they were the Greek mythological figure Sisyphus, doomed for eternity to push a heavy boulder up a hill only to watch it fall back down again. Bird ups the stakes by putting the man’s house and the entire village it belongs to at the bottom of that hill, making the choice especially sadistic – keep fighting with the dismal assurance that you’ll never succeed, or say “to hell with this” and let the rock roll, and smash everything and everyone you care about to smithereens. Bird’s affinity for alliteration and SAT words collides with his dark sense of humor in some of the most brilliant turns of phrase I’ve ever heard from the man: “I’d rather fail like a mortal than flail like a god/I’m a lightning rod, history forgets the moderates/For those who sit recalcitrant and taciturn/You know I’d rather turn and burn than scale this edifice.” Just to parse those few lines took a fair amount of effort on my part, and I’m sure there’s so much more that I could unearth doing a true deep dive on this song… but I’ve got the rest of the album to review. So I’ll simply point out that musically, this song has more going on than I gave it credit for. Bird’s signature violin is conspicuously absent, but the crisp drums and bass more than make up for it, and the melody ultimately does come across as quite catchy even though I was too stubborn to admit it at first. There’s an ironic lightness to its “Screw it, I’m outta here” attitude that I find incredibly refreshing.
There’s nothing funny about this six-and-a-half-minute, slow-burning epic. Despite the easygoing, sipping your martini in a dimly lit jazz club sort of setting, this one turns out to be a hell of a potent protest song. Against the slow, smoky backbeat of the drums and piano, and the gradual swelling of the strings, Bird tells a story of a looming civil war that the most privileged members of society can’t see coming. Sure, we’re all aware that we live in a very divided society here in America, but the conflict is largely a war of words and not physical weapons, he seems to argue here, so what’s the rush? Bird makes a chilling comparison to “1936 in Catalonia”, right before the rise of fascism in Spain took a decidedly violent turn. While Bird’s delivery is cool as ice, almost as if he’s feeling out a melody on the spot while his backing band lays down the groove, he sustains some pretty stellar high notes here and there as he comes back around to the ominous reminder that this fight is “bloodless for now”. I feel like the real injustice being protested here isn’t merely the obvious evil of fascism and authoritarianism. All of us reasonable folks know that’s bad. But we hem and haw and talk a good talk about being outraged, yet few of us actually seem to take action. That seems to be the crux of the song, even if it takes a while for Bird to make his point due to the generous space left between some of the verses for instrumental noodling. I can’t complain when it means we get some delicious passages from his violin, upping the ante on the already great “Truth Lies Low” from Are You Serious. This track was released on its own in late 2018, before it was clear that it was attached to an album, and while I normally don’t pay much attention to stand-alone singles that offer no context as to whether they’re part of an upcoming project, this one got its hooks into me pretty early, and it still hasn’t let go. Bird is two for two so far on all-time great material. (Unfortunately it’s damn near impossible for any artist to maintain such an extremely level of quality throughout an entire record.)
After a bit of a slower start (not that I’m complaining when the songs are as great as those two were), we need something a little more upbeat here. With the plucking of his violin strings and a noticeably faster tempo, Bird’s got us covered here as a launches into a breezy little song about… misery. Specifically, misery as a form of competition. Have you ever heard of “misery poker”, where folks try to one-up each other in a perversely self-serving series of brags about which one of them is currently going through the most hell? Well, this song turns it into a full-on Olympic sport, as far as I can tell. The main problem with this otherwise brilliant set-up is that once you’ve heard the build-up from the peppy verse into one of those pre-choruses where he’s kind of talk-singing in a way that screams, “THIS IS MEANT TO BE FUNNY… but I forgot to write a punchline!” (which, if I’m being honest, tends to be my reaction whenever Bird gets “talky” in a song), and finally into his version of a big rock chorus, there really isn’t much more story to unpack, because there’s just a bridge and an outro left to hear at that point. (A fun outro, mind you, which seems hell-bent on making the listener lose their place in its ever-shifting rhythm.) So this song is a summation of a lot of ideas that seem fun on their own, but it doesn’t quite come together into the masterpiece that it deserved to be.
4. Cracking Codes
This would be one of the “stark ballads” I mentioned earlier. Despite the inherent playfulness in its intro and outro of plucked strings, there’s such a slow and skeletal movement to it that I’ve had a genuinely hard time getting invested. I can appreciate the irony in Bird singing to someone he loves, employing metaphors about military-grade secret codes and Rosetta Stones and the like as he tries to communicate that he just wants to know, in simple terms, if that person’s love for him is genuine. The subtle female backing vocals add a bit of color here, but other than that and the modest contribution of the violin, I’m not finding much about the acoustic guitar strumming/plucking here to hold my attention. It’s well written enough to pass Bird’s incredibly high bar for lyrics, but unfortunately end ends up being a noticeable dip in the otherwise engaging front half of the record.
This one pretty quickly stood out to me as one of the album’s more entertaining upbeat numbers – with the distorted violin opening, and the beat that takes off running similar to my favorite track “Roma Fade” from the previous album, it’s a pretty easy tune to like… but a tricky one to really dig into. The fact that Bird made up a word (as I believe he has in the past with compositions like “Sovay”) and used it as the entire hook of the song is certainly a head-scratcher. The verses contain their fair share of dissatisfaction with the current political climate, coming the closest out of anything on the album to a direct mention of Trump without an actual name-check: “You think it’s just an aberration/That it could not happen here/Such an abomination/Could be the man of the year.” The word he coined for the chorus, which is really just the phrase “fall or run” crammed together, tends to describe the “fight-or-flight” sort of gut reaction Trump seems to have to any and every adversary, but as with “Bloodless”, the song is more than just about America having elected an awful manchild as its President. It’s about that personality representing the worst of our instincts, which includes the folks on the far right who voted for the guy out of fear, and the folks on the far left whose first instinct is “Screw this, I gotta move to another country to get away from this idiot.” Fear, and its ability to unmask the cowards among us, comes in many flavors. The person Bird is singing to seems to be an otherwise rational being who has let fear reduce them to a predictable algorithm, a puppet for others who use scare tactics to keep them in line: ” You think you’re making choices/But there’s nothing really here/Just tone-deaf angry voices/That are breathing in your ear.”
I got an eerie sense of deja vu when I first realized that the slow fade-in at the beginning of this song reminded me of a similar chord progression from the Noble Beast track “Not a Robot, But a Ghost”. In this case it sets us up for a completely different song, so this isn’t a retread of one of my favorite Bird tracks from ten years ago. But I am curious as to whether it’s an intentional self-quote or just an artist subconsciously repeating himself. This is another one of the starker songs on the album, though lyrically it’s got a central idea that hits pretty hard: “Our enemies are what make us whole.” I’m gonna guess, given this song’s initial release on a compilation prior to the 2018 midterm elections, that this one’s about the sort of infighting on the left that some commentators fear will cripple their ability to keep the right in check. My candidate didn’t get picked in the primaries, or nobody represents all my policy positions 100%, so I’m just gonna not bother showing up at the polls, that sort of thing. I could be reading more into the particulars than Bird intends, but his slowly sung, carefully worded explanation that “This ain’t no archipelago, no remote atoll” seems to be a call for unity rather than petty bickering and a refusal to cooperate if we don’t all get exactly everything we want. This one’s thought provoking, even if it isn’t one of the more noticeable tracks on the album, musically speaking.
7. Proxy War
Speaking of infighting, this fun little piano and violin-heavy song, with a sexier syncopated backbeat than any song of this nature should probably have the right to possess, appears to be Bird’s take on the war of words that goes down all day, every day on the Internet. Random people who don’t know each other from Adam taking bitter snipes and easy cheapshots at each other, most of it stuff we’d never dare to say to people in “real life”. The distance that we feel between our true selves and our online identities appears to be the subject of most interest to Bird here, as he describes a lot of those interactions and relationships as though they weren’t actually real and didn’t have any consequences. “You don’t have to remember/We forget what memories are for/Now we store them in the atmosphere/If you don’t want to get too close/You don’t have to get too close/It’s just what we’re calling peer-to-peer.” This, too, seems to relate back to “Bloodless”, as all of the anger stirred up by this war of words on the Internet (a fair amount of it instigated by foreign actors whose main goal is to stir up dissent and distrust, I might add) threatens to eventually spill over into “real life”, where real weapons draw real blood.
No, this song wasn’t inspired by the NBC sci-fi drama of the same name. (Cool show, though.) Rather, it’s about the concept of “manifest destiny”, the notion that America’s westward expansion was not only its right, but its divine purpose (subtext: the previous owners and stewards of its resources be damned). As Bird questions this ideology, he draws a parallel between this time in history and a “great disaster” that he feels humanity is coming to the verge of in the modern day, where (if I’m reading between the lines correctly) our tendency to consume resources greedily with little regard for how future generations are going to pick up the tab is threatening the very livelihood of our planet. Pretty dramatic stuff for what seems to play out as a simple folks song at first. Bird’s vocals (and the female harmony vocals he often employs) are in fine form here, as are his whistling and the occasional flourishes from the violin, but this is another one of those songs that took me a while to appreciate because it didn’t seem as musically adventurous. When Bird is taking lyrical chances to unpack difficult concepts in such an innovative way, I tend to expect more innovation from the composition of the song as well.
9. Don the Struggle
Did you enjoy the song “Anonanimal” from Noble Beast? It was another of my personal favorites from that record, and apparently Bird was keen to revisit it as well, since he uses almost the exact same breakdown in 7/8 time in the middle of this song that he did in that one. The offbeat rhythm and vocal melody are so similar that it has to be intentional – though there’s a bit more piano in this version (as there is on a lot of this album). What’s weird is that it feels like a bit of a non-sequitur in the midst of an otherwise slow dirge of a song. The drums and piano chords stomp along with a deliberate, measured inelegance, as if depicting a person who is too tired to walk but who keeps lifting their limbs by sheer force of will to take each agonizing step toward their goal. I wouldn’t have liked this at all, had Bird kept up that tedious pace for the entire song, but the slowness of it makes the contrast with that delightful bridge section really stand out. And there’s space left for some abstract noodling on the violin in the second half, which I love. With lyrical jabs such as ” Clinging to the thread of the notion that your fight is a righteous one” and “I saw you limping through the exit row, boasting of the wars you’ve won”, it’s pretty clear that Bird is singing about a pyrrhic victory of some sort, where a person doesn’t seem to realize the sacrifices they’ve made to win an ideological battle ultimate weren’t worth the toll it took on them physically.
10. Bellevue Breakfast Club
The verse that bookends this song is another one of the most striking on the record: “And I will hold you hostage/Make you part of my conspiracy/You will be witness to carnage/You know there’s no you without me.” While this is another one of those slowly delivered songs, where the easygoing melody and pace of it don’t quite do the sinister lyrics justice, I’m intrigued by that idea of a performer knowing he has a captive audience, exploiting their fears, and subjecting them to disturbing imagery in order to manipulate them into giving a certain response. I don’t think Bird himself does this, but he’s probably aware of the temptation to do so, and throughout the album he’s been exploring how sensationalized fear and outrage have seemed to turn society into its worst self, so this is a fittingly dark way to end the record. Were it not for Bird’s penchant for ending his recent string of albums on a track with the word “Belle” in the title, I actually think the title of this song would have been “By Any Means Necessary”, because he’s singing from the point of view of someone who feels completely justified in using any underhanded method he can think up to get the desired results, rather than encouraging us to think for ourselves. Of course, in inhabiting this character, Bird himself seems to be admonishing us to be wary of these types of people, whether they be musicians, reporters, or just randos yelling at us on the Internet.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Cracking Codes $.50
Proxy War $1.50
Don the Struggle $1.25
Bellevue Breakfast Club $.75
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: