There are some musicians in this world I could do without. I’m not saying this in reference to only bad musicians, there have been plenty of legendary artists and bands that haven’t affected me in the slightest. And this is no knock against them, it just wasn’t for me. Just as these artists exist, so do those I can’t live without. Those artists that attach themselves to you, their sound becoming apart of your being, helping to define you as a listener. Even among artists that I love, there’s only a handful that I depend on. Andrew Bird is one of those artists. The first time I saw him live (Orpheum Theater, 12/7/2007, second concert ever!) I remember it being one of the first times I found myself thinking this person is doing exactly what they were put on this earth to do. The concept is simple, yet it’s a feat I think is rarely accomplished. Seeing it is as humbling as it is beautiful. I was transfixed and transformed. Every time I’ve seen him since then is no different. He has this sense of genuineness, which is something he aims for, as he’s known to tweak songs constantly, rarely playing the same thing from night to night. And after 20 plus releases of LP’s (13!!), EP’s, and live albums, maintaining originality that comes from a natural place is not only something to be applauded but revered.
Though he began almost a decade prior, I first came across Andrew Bird in 2005 (as did many) with the release of The Mysterious Production of Eggs. I often talk about gateway music, music you need to hear before you move on to the next sound. It builds a foundation and prepares you for the more complex sounds you come across later. This was one of the first “introductory” albums I can remember. And while it’s not often I go back to it, unlike other introductory albums I hold dear to my heart, it’s more because there’s so much to love in his massive body of work and less to do with the album itself. I was instantly taken with the depth of its simplicity. Even as multiple parts are weaving around and moving about, they’re presented in this delicate, serene way; the pinnacle of this being the albums featured track, “A Nervous Tick Motion of the Head to the Left.” It eases in to you before sweeping you up, and before you know it you’re swirling inside the layered vocal harmonies, distant guitar riffs, smooth string melodies that are paralleled by his whistling, and it all comes to such a soft ending that before you know it your 30 seconds into the following track (the also excellent “Fake Palindromes”). I knew right then and there that this would be an artist I would become enamored with. I began going back to hear everything I had missed and that was that, I was obsessed.
Cut to over a decade later and we have Bird’s latest release, Are You Serious, which might be his most personal record to date. It chronicles his dealing with a “stretch of bad luck,” which included, among other things, he and his wife overcoming her bout with cancer (here’s a short but insightful interview with the LA Times to explain his overall process with that and the new album). This album seems to have taken pieces of his last handful of records. Implementing the soft lyricism of Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of…, the atmospheric instrumentals he perfected on Echolocations: Canyon, the depth of sound he built in I Want to See Pulaski at Night, and the wide-ranging, diverse approach we were given on 2012’s two releases, Break It Yourself and Hands of Glory. Are You Serious has been in almost constant rotation since falling into my hands. Bookended with the raw opener “Capsized” and the beautiful closer “Bellevue,” the album is packed with the ups and downs that were felt during it’s creation, as is his patience with the material. Tracks “Roma Fade” and “Saints Preservus” have these intricate layers packed inside a catchy melody, mixing his masterful work on the violin with his knack for both vocal and instrumental harmonies. The album is filled with complexities hidden behind a relaxed approach, i.e. “Truth Lies Low,” which takes it’s time and hits you with a smooth instrumental bridge at 3:28, or the title track, “Are You Serious” which presents a casual soulfulness that can’t be denied. Tracks where he goes for the minimalistic approach, with just a guitar and his voice (“Chemical Switches”), allowing his lyrics to be the main draw, pack a weighty punch. And even with all these different approaches, the flow of the record is very much intact, as he transitions seamlessly from one song to the next, creating something just as gorgeous as it is addictive.
I understand that this review may seem generous, and you could attribute that to my undying love, but I would say that it’s even harder to garner such a positive review due to my already established affections. With such an expansive body of work, he’s at a point where he needs to work harder to impress; to provide something new for fans. Which ultimately makes this album that much more impressive. He is an artist at the height of his innovation, and completely in control of his abilities. His ear is masterful, constructing grandiose themes and sounds into beautiful 3-4 minute packages. The depth of his music coming from someone who is clearly well studied, exposing himself to many genres and molding them into his own brand. He’s long been one of my favorite musicians, and with each release he cements that standing. Long live good music, and long live Andrew Bird.
Also I have two things of note: first, if you haven’t seen him live, it’s something to behold. For those of you in the Los Angeles area, he’s got a couple dates lined up at The Ace Hotel (May 14th and 15th). Second, his 2001 instrumental gem, Ballad of the Red Shoes, features the track “Theme 1 (waltz).” A track that my future wife (Alice Eve for those who are unaware) will be gliding down the aisle to. Prepare your hearts.