Andrew Bird’s latest LP is quite well represented by its cover art. It’s his most natural sounding release–organic is another word. While 2007’s Armchair Apocrypha was a sleek, cavernous record, Noble Beast sounds lighter, less labored and more authentic. Further, while Bird’s music has always been distinctly his own, mixing violin and whistling with his uniquely verbose lyrics, his new release adds a new element–mystery. Back to the cover art: the photo is at first conventionally pretty, but notice its saturation. It emphasizes shadow, rendering the field a somewhat amorphous blob. I wouldn’t go far as to say the photo is foreboding, but there is certainly an element of the unknown scurrying through that tall grass. For good and ill, these attributes carry into the music. Bird’s subdued, acoustic approach at times leads to a succession of songs that are hard to differentiate. Yet what at times feels same-y is often simply cohesive. To a degree greater than ever before in his career, Bird has made a true record rather than a collection of songs. The choice of sequencing is commendable. Noble Beast always introduces a new sound just when what came before–his labyrinthine song structures and arrangements–has become familiar. As each song ends, you always feel as if there’s something you just missed, hiding and waiting. In many ways, this record reminds of Dylan’s John Wesley Harding or The Basement Tapes. Like those records, there’s a timeless–specifically American–grace pulsating within each note. The record’s mysterious, elusive nature–best embodied by the stellar “Anonanimal,” a cryptic, esoteric song about transformation– hints that Bird is on the right path; his at times overly intellectual work is starting to become evocative. Wonderfully (and typically), he’s managed to do this in quite an unexpected and uncommon way.
[Fat Possum; 2009]