Andrew Bird was born with a thesaurus in place of his spleen.
Grumpy-pants week continues here at Voreblog. First the Steelers won the Super Bowl. Then David Denby dissed Slumdog Millionaire. Even the inerrant Christian Bale supposedly lost his temper.
And now we must level our critical judgment on Andrew Bird’s latest album, Noble Beast.
Before we do so, let’s make a few things clear:
- Nothing should prevent you from finding more room in your life for Andrew Bird.
- Noble Beast is better than the majority of albums that will be released this year.
- Both members of Voreblog would, in a heartbeat, gladly bear Andrew’s children if asked.
That said, this album is a disappointment.
It doesn’t have a center. Its songs have the tendency to peak halfway through and then fizzle out. Bird’s wordplay, always cryptic and bordering on nonsensical, is especially cryptic and nonsensical. What exactly do the lines “From proto-Sanskrit Minoans to porto-centric Lisboans / Greek Cypriots and Hobis-hots / Who hang around the ports a lot” mean?
Yes, part of the charm of Bird’s music is how subtly it grows on you, burrowing in with every listen. But we’ve listened and listened, and so far Noble Beast doesn’t stack up. Have we told you exactly how much we love Armchair Apocraphya and — especially! — The Mysterious Production of Eggs? Erin has seen Andrew Bird perform twelve times. He is a one-man whirling dervish of sound, looping snippets of violin and percussion over one another and sprinkling in guitar, glockenspiel and a trademark whistle. You owe it to yourself to see Bird in concert — if not twelve times, then at least once.
Noble Beast does have its moments. “Fitz and the Dizzyspells” is a bouncy little rocker that’s also the album’s best sing-along. (We can already picture the concert crowds joyfully shouting, “Soldier on, soldier on!”) “Effigy” is one of Bird’s most autobiographical songs, given his reclusive sojourn on a farm in Illinois before releasing The Mysterious Production of Eggs: ”Fake conversations on a nonexistent telephone / Like the words of a man who’s spent a little too much time alone / When one has spent too much time alone…” It’s interesting to reread this post from Bird’s blog Measure for Measure and then listen to “Oh No,” the album’s first single; it feels sunny, until you dig into the lyrics and realize, as Bird writes on his blog, that the song is asking the question, “What does it take to wake us up, we who feel so little? Aren’t we almost like sociopaths, only the kind that don’t kill people?”
Martin Dosh, the multi-instrumentalist and co-collaborator whose presence buoyed much of Armchair Apocraphya ( “Simple X” being one of its highlights), is less effective on Noble Beast. “Not A Robot, But A Ghost,” the only song he co-wrote on this album, begins with what sounds like an army of silverware jumping out of the dishwasher and marching across the kitchen floor. The lyrics evoke conflict and violence ( “I crack the codes that end the war”) and may or may not end with a bomb going off ( “There’s something burning / It casts a pall / It’s melting numbers right / Off the walls”). Bird has likened songwriting to code-cracking ( “Writing lyrics becomes like running multiple code-breaking programs in your head”), but this song, like the album, doesn’t add up to something greater than its individual parts.
The best song on the album, “Anonanimal,” returns to the personal note of “Effigy.” The lyrics “I will become this animal / Perfectly adapted to the music halls / I will become this animal / Anomalous appendages / A non-animal” hint at the tension Bird has written of before: The need for creative space ( “Solitude, boredom, and the desperate need to entertain oneself are ideal stimuli for songwriting”) versus the very public, cluttered life of a touring musician. How do you balance one against the other? What does the artist sacrifice by coexisting in both worlds? The sense we get from Noble Beast is one of conflict and tension, marked by experimentation that occasionally ends in a cul-de-sac but occasionally finds the open road. It’s not a bad album, and we’ll spin it many more times before year’s end. But we had such high hopes.
In another Measure for Measure post, Bird plainly confesses, “I listened to [Noble Beast] recently and I’m concerned about how much I like it.” But, he wonders,
If I like my record too much does it mean I’m getting complacent? Or am I just getting better at making records sound the way I want them to? It worries me because what I love about songwriting is that there is no guaranteed formula for success. I’m hoping that getting better at making records means, for one thing, that I am learning how to leave room for serendipitous moments. I always want to hear how things didn’t go according to plan.
Noble Beast is the sound of things that don’t go according to plan. It also has its serendipitous moments. We don’t wholeheartedly recommend it, but we do recommend Andrew Bird. We can’t wait for his next one.
Given how many Andrew Bird fans we know are out there, what’s your verdict on Noble Beast? Time for an insta-poll!
[photo: Cameron Wittig]