(Fat Possum; 2009)
By Conrad Amenta | 29 January 2009
Andrew Bird is that mixed blessing of an artist who doesn’t fully make sense until you see him play live. He’s a marvel of careful coordination, looping guitar, vocals, violin, xylophone, and his scaling whistle, all while holding fast to pop structures. It would be easier for him if he’d simply build walls of texture and volume, but then he wouldn’t so fully inhabit his world-weary troubadour character. And there’s the crux: Bird’s live performances are simply more evidence that he places his personality—his politics, his verbosity, his penchant for flippant eccentricity—at the eye of his musical weather systems. So when Bird sings “From proto-Sanskrit Minoans / to porto-centric Lisboans” on Noble Beast, his fifth solo album, he’s not only writing from the space he’s so carefully carved out for himself, he’s also getting perilously close to satirizing himself.
Get this man a regular collaborator, someone to reign in his more idiosyncratic tendencies. Dosh often played the part of contrapuntal percussionist, and helped Bird to strategically co-opt his own crescendos thereby subverting, or whatever, the listener’s expectations for an easy rush. It was a refreshing anti-catharsis, all static electricity in the air and taut nerves. The more I think about it, the more it feels like Bird is unintentionally positing opposites to Arcade Fire—a single person rather than a sprawling collective, hyper-literate lyrics rather than wordless chanting, and a formula that never peaks. This approach is still in place with each song on Noble Beast (and mini-song instrumental departures) comprising a rarely unsettled body of water. Where there’s difference is the effable polish of this work, similar to 2007’s Armchair Apocrypha, that rather than reveal the understandably frayed edges of a solo album’s personal exposition decides instead to buff clear each mote and flaw.
Live versions of what I imagine for many will be the album’s highlight “Not a Robot, But a Ghost” have bobbed around for a while. The mild interest generated by the prospect that the song would here be presented with streamlined studio technique, mimicking the well-produced electronic percussion that drives it, is catered to in a gesture I consider both handy and obvious. “Anonanimal” follows suite, combining the album’s best melodies with an interlocking rhythm that unfortunately presses through one too many permutations. Noble Beast overcomplicates what should be a simpler formula; the meat is in Bird’s performances, the virtuoso skills at his disposal, not the antiseptic display of distorted guitar tones that the album’s best song unfortunately resorts to in its final section.
And everywhere Bird’s lyrical prowess is the hand that holds all the cards, be it winning or losing. Compare him to the Walkmen’s Hamilton Leithauser, another lyricist who, having snatched at our hearts with his early endeavors, swiveled his thematic survey for last year’s You & Me. Leithauser is proof positive that a subtle change in lyrics can transform a band’s direction significantly. For Bird, it’s a twist of already overcomplicated lines into unrecognizable displays of vocabulary or forced imagery, such as on “Fitz and Dizzyspells,” during which he assembles the following broken mirror of overwrought ideas: “Lava flows over crooks and craggy cliffs to the ocean and explodes in a steam heat fevered cyclical motion has a name but the name goes unspoken it’s in vain cause the language is broken, so cast your own, cast your own, soldier on.” Outside of the realm of phonoaesthetics and the possibilities that such types of appreciation for words conjures, that kind of passage can only contain exactly as much or as little meaning as the listener wants it to, which is exactly as much or as little as the hum of a refrigerator or the drip from an air conditioner.
Bird is obviously an extraordinarily talented performer, one I’ve watched and enjoyed and whose music I’ve thought about for hours afterwards. When he played I felt I more fully understood that his music is the soundtrack to the musician-as-island: the self-isolated genius figure that, by eschewing writing partners, is left to walk in circles and cut tracks in the dirt. But I’m left finally to also conclude that his albums are shades of their live counterparts, the limited means of a person bailing out his own personal ocean.