Andrew Bird might have got his biggest break last year: a cameo in The Muppets film. But unlike Leslie Feist or Dave Grohl, Bird didn’t end up with a single shot cameo (or multiple shots if you’re Grohl), but instead was the whistling voice of main character/Muppet Walter, whose talent turns out to be a saving grace for Kermit and friends. And while the track – “The Whistling Caruso” – might draw in a good few more listeners to Bird’s music (especially since it’s rightfully credited to him and included on the film’s soundtrack), it’s hard to tell if it’ll create a whole host of new fans. Since 2005’s The Mysterious Production of Eggs, Bird’s prominence has been gradually growing, but his popularity seems to have been garnered by word of mouth more than anything else, people speaking well of his enveloping and hypnotizing live shows. But gauging his overall appeal has been hard to predict, and despite its rightful tag as a “grower,” Bird’s last album, Noble Beast got to number twelve in the Billboard chart – a whole 64 places higher than Armchair Apocrypha’s entry point.
Thus, I struggle to give any sort of accurate forecast regarding how well his latest album, Break It Yourself, might fare in terms of overall popularity. Much like its predecessor, Break It Yourself shares a silent request for the listener to be patient with the music and wait for it to click. To casual or new listeners, Bird’s music here might seem drifting and even aimless, often lulling towards slow costive rests; much to their surprise too, since lead single “Eyeoneye” burst into speakers with a strict and heavy guitar presence. The track turns out to be something of a red herring, feeling a little out of place compared to the surrounding music, but is still perfectly within Bird’s own style.
The people who will – perhaps – enjoy this record most, though, are the fans of Bird who are readily familiar with his musical motions. “Hole In The Ocean Floor” is a sprawling eight minute sweep that takes its sound from Bird’s unpredictable and engrossing live shows, spreading violin streaks between and on top of each other while tracks like “Give It Away” and “Orpheo Looks Back” are sprightly efforts full of intriguing tonal shifts and time signatures. There’s plenty on offer, and at points Bird even introduces us to new sound experiences, such as slowed down voices on “Desperation Breeds” and “Lazy Projector,” or the glimmering chimes on the warming, dewy-eyed closing track “Belles.”
What surprised me most, though, is how much of the material from the Norman soundtrack Bird has re-worked here. But unlike the difference you would find between the track “I” and “Imitosis,” the versions of the Norman songs on Break It Yourself aren’t vastly different to the originals, still centring on acoustic performances for the most part. The wandering and wordless vocal melody from “The Kiss” is stitched into the opening track “Desperation Breeds,” still coming off as entirely natural, like something Bird might hum (or whistle) to himself while on his way to his barn. Elsewhere “Sifters” is fitted out with a slow-burning pizzicato melody, but the emphasis still lies with Bird’s lyrical matter while “Lusitania” is just as lovely as before, if not moreso due to Annie Clark making an appearance and fitting in perfectly to a line like “Go ahead boy say something dumb.”
Still, all this description doesn’t feel like an evaluation; all I’ve said is that Andrew Bird fans will like the album, which is a rather redundant statement because an Andrew Bird fan is always going to like his albums in some form or another. And that’s mainly due to the way Bird has built up his musical catalogue over the decades, but more specifically over the time he’s been releasing solo albums. Much like Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Bird has created a certain, specific style of music he can call his own, and be identified by, while also being able to move about freely in this place without fear of losing his core fan base. Much like I’ve already said, the shifts in sound here aren’t going to surprise the casual listener, but will appeal to the listener who knows how and why to realise their significance.
Break It Yourself is still an Andrew Bird record through and through, though: there’s an avid attention to detail, small instrumental tracks, and a wry, almost deprecated sense of humour at points. His lyrical content might seem a bit less ambiguous and cryptic (however, the line “I don’t see the sense in us breaking up at all” isn’t as obvious as you might think – it’s actually a line he wrote for Kermit), but the themes of apocalypse and nature vs. nurture are still there, along with plenty of wordplay. And it’s evident that he still enjoys the sounds of words, as opposed to their meaning, as evidenced by the way the he sings the titular lyrics to “Hole In The Ocean Floor,” turning them into a liquid-y substance that flows seamlessly with his music.
The end result then, is the sound of Bird settling down, becoming comfortable with his music and letting it come off as natural, without losing the sense of enjoyment and the hypnotic dynamism of his core elements (pizzicato loops played over and over, whistling). At times things just sound too easy (“Fatal Shore”), or like’s he figuring out his own complex philosophical problems (“Near Death Experience Experience,” a worthy sequel to “A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left”), but it always sounds interesting. And that’s one of the lasting marks of Bird’s music: there’s always something to muse over, both when talking about it and while listening to it.
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