Album Review: Andrew Bird – Outside Problems

[Loma Vista; 2023]

At this point in his career it’s probably safe to assume that there’s an accompanying instrumental album of some sort for each of Andrew Bird’s releases. If not on the live circuit then Bird is exploring ideas, themes, motifs, and melodies by himself. Akin to records which came before it, Outside Problems is a companion piece to 2022’s Inside Problems. A lovely instrumental album in itself, featuring all of the usual Andrew Bird traits you would expect – looping violin, whistling, dry and sardonic titles – but better appreciated as an addendum to its predecessor.  

Fans will find what they expect here: skeletons of strummed and plucked violin whereupon Bird noodles and discovers melodical areas of interest. Every so often you might hear a familiar tune, the beginnings of a song that would make it onto Inside Problems; if the vibrant and lively “Festivus” ran for twice its length then you would no doubt hear “Atomized” forming fully in real time while “What We Saw” captures Bird honing in on the central melody of “Make A Picture”. Even without knowing the future result of the latter track, there’s still an undeniable sense of knowing that there’s gold to be found with a little more digging.

And Outside Problems as a whole stands on its own without knowledge of its partner album. “Mo Teef” hiccups and chugs along, and there’s golden moments (as with any Andrew Bird record) when he harmonises wordlessly with his violin. The slick and slippery blues of opening track “Mancey” evokes similar genre exercises like “Capsized”, and the accompanying bass from Alan Hampton (and finger snaps) adds a welcome foundation for Bird to play around on top of. There’s even room for a little stepping outside of the box: “Heaven’s Boughs”’ rippling violin strums makes for a dreamy tone while final track “Tik Tok”, with it’s lurking and flickering backtracked effects, has some interesting sonic touches to enjoy. Bird is at the point in his career where the changes are small and subtle, and this being a transitional album between more complete works, details are like footnotes for future records.

Location is the other factor that plays a pivotal role in how Bird’s exploration goes. Recorded in the mountains and orange groves of the small Californian town of Ojai, Outside Problems quietly hums with an expansive warmth. Insect and aviary chatter seeps in at the bookends of some tracks, reminding you of the setting. This means that Outside Problems has more in common with Bird’s Echolocations experiments than instrumental albums like Useless Creatures (the accompanying partner to 2009’s Noble Beast); compared to records recorded in his home studio, this album feels much more coloured and wide open. The walls won’t echo his music back to him, but the fields and landscape will certainly help fill in gaps. 

Similarly, listeners and fans of Bird’s output will fill in gaps to where they know the next iteration of certain melodies end up. If Inside Problems was the feature film, then Outside Problems is the accompanying TV series that adds context to the main feature, but also has its own branches of story to offer those interested. Never one to let good ideas lie low, Andrew Bird continues to offer the full picture, which his fans will no doubt appreciate the most.