“Do you need a reason we should commit treason and bring into this world a son?” Andrew Bird asks on “Valleys of the Young,” the penultimate track on his newest LP, Are You Serious, out last week via Loma Vista Recordings. It’s an uncommonly straightforward and personal lyric for a songwriter who enjoys working in dense but clever wordplay. And although this insight into the virtuoso violinists’ personal life is a welcome addition to his massive canon of recorded music, it comes at the tail end of perhaps his most consistently characteristic album to date.
Andrew Bird was born and raised in Illinois and attended Northwestern University for violin performance. Classically-trained doesn’t even begin to describe Bird’s violin abilities; he can do simply anything with a violin, and has reinvented the instrument’s pop/rock capabilities by showcasing incredible pizzicato ability (plucking strings as opposed to bowing them) and extensively looping violin parts in layers. In addition to his principal instrument, Bird is a self-described professional whistler and plays the guitar decently. But his knack for arranging off-kilter folk songs goes well beyond his playing technique as his already impressive discography has grown and his songwriting has become tighter and more focused, culminating with his newest LP.
Are You Serious is the most direct Bird album to date, culling back the typically longer tracklist to eleven takes, all pop songs of three to four minutes. In addition to a filter of swooning violin harmonies, each track is treated with thoughtful lyrics covering unusual topics like physics and chemistry. Every pluck, bow, guitar chord, bass note, and drum thwack is so carefully placed that listening through the record is like touring a museum of eleven intricate, colorful dioramas. Saying that Bird isn’t currently at the top of his songwriting game could not be further from the truth. Really, Andrew Bird has been a top-tier songwriter, arranger and performer for nearly a decade.
For the uninitiated, Are You Serious is the perfect entry point to a staggering discography that includes 8 solo LPs, 2 LPs with his former ragtime band The Bowl of Fire, 5 live albums, 3 EPs, 2 companion records and 1 covers album. All the hallmarks of classic Bird are here to be discovered; opener “Capsized” and the title track give you funky, jazzy Bird. “Chemical Switches” gives you sweet, sparse, acoustic Bird. “The New Saint Jude” gives you calypso-inspired, tropical electrical violin Bird. “Roma Fade” and “Puma” showcase Bird’s trademark ability to spin natural sciences homework concepts into metaphors about human relationships. And yes, that topic is some classic Bird — the line “And she was radioactive for seven days / But I wanted to hold her anyway” doesn’t mark the first time he’s sung about gamma rays.
These Are You Serious tracks are all shorter, less instrumental, and more focused on melody and traditional verse/chorus structure than those from his past discography. But this is a minor change. There isn’t a whole lot of new ground being made on Are You Serious. Rather, it’s the sound of an extremely talented musician unfortunately clinging to some sort of glass ceiling he’s built for himself as he distills his very unique sound. There are some notable highlights; the title track contains one of the strongest, most memorable melodies Bird has deployed. “Roma Fade” bounces along at an impressively quick tempo and features thicker violin arrangements than we’ve seen before, and “Valleys of the Young” moves into the big, sentimental ballad territory typical of Bird’s album closers, but this time with some additional force behind it as well as an excellent reversed drums and guitars section. Song for song, however, Are You Serious is hardly more superior than any of Bird’s main projects from the past eleven years — a run that previously culminated in the masterpiece Break It Yourself (2012).
There is one exception, however. “Left Handed Kisses,” a duet with Fiona Apple, is perhaps the most remarkable track on the record, and undoubtedly qualifies as a career top five. Bird takes on a more country-tinged voice and trades lines with Apple through three sections. It is there that a gorgeous arrangement of violins, bells, and glockenspiel descend on the singers while preserving plenty of open space, until Bird completely takes charge of the track with an electric violin solo edgier and unlike anything he’s ever put on record. Apple’s voice is confident, rasping, and folksy. Together the pair do a good Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros impression.
Bird’s lyrical wordplay is on display once again, dropping tightly-wound metaphors by the scores that, while managing to worm their way into one’s consciousness after repeated listens, require significant unpacking in order to understand the underlying meaning. A listener may commonly find themselves repeatedly singing along with a line like “Used to be willfully obtuse (or is the word abstruse?) / Semantics like a noose, get out your dictionaries” (from the title track) without having any idea what the intended meaning is. And that’s the way Bird likes it; the wordplay and verbosity serves as another instrument with which to communicate the idea of his sound. Directly personal lyrics regarding marriage and fatherhood are present on the final two tracks and thus stand out from the labyrinth of arcane scientific, religious and nautical terms found throughout. My vote for the best line on the record belongs to one of Fiona Apple’s, however, partly for her wonderfully rough delivery and partly for its accessibility in comparison to Bird’s lines — “The point of your song here missus, is that if you really loved me / You’d risk more than a few fifty cent words in your backhanded love song.”
The highlights therefore are undoubtedly high, and Are You Serious is another musically solid album by perhaps one of the most consistent songwriters working today, but it fails to nudge into the unchartered territory we’d want from an artist twenty years into his career. If Are You Serious is your introduction to Andrew Bird, you’re in good hands. If a few of these tracks make it onto your Summer ‘16 Chillfest playlist, you’re doing it right. But if, like myself, you’re a longtime Bird fan that would rather see him experiment and fail than reproduce the classics you’ve loved for years, Are You Serious is a disappointment. I adore Andrew, but four years removed from his last full-length of original music, I must ask him: are you serious?
Article by HR Huber-Rodriguez