Andrew Bird once sang that “being alone can be quite romantic,” and let’s hope he means it; Bird got his start with a bizarre collection of European folk songs and theatrical instruments called Music of Hair, and, thirteen years and several albums later, he still stands alone, too original for the mainstream and too traditional for indie pop. In his own way, he’s every bit as iconoclastic as a Tom Waits or a Leonard Cohen– with his classical violin training, his world-class whistle, his retro good looks, his knack for wordplay, and his infatuation with pre-WWII pop idioms, he’s created a body of work that’s as varied and rich from album to album as it is cohesive and visionary when taken as a whole. There’s simply no one else like him– no one even close– either underground or in the mainstream, which, of course, makes his music a precious gift.
And it’s a gift that keeps on giving: Bird’s latest record, Noble Beast, arrives on January 20th, and it’s a high point in a career that’s never had a low. I’ve got a brief review of the album in an upcoming issue of Christianity Today, and my full take will be posted here in a couple of weeks. For the uninitiated, though, here’s a quick glimpse at the strange and glorious creations in Bird’s aviary. We’ll start right after Music of Hair— if only because it’s very difficult to find, only recently made available again at Bird’s Web site– and omit the albums he made with the retro-swing outfit Squirrel Nut Zippers, instead focusing on his very fine works as a solo artist and a bandleader.
Thrills (1997) and Oh! The Grandeur (1998)
Bird sounded completely out of time– and completely uninterested in fashion or trends– from the very beginning. Armed with a violin and a strange fascination with Western swing, hot jazz licks, pre-war pop, and Brechtian theatricality, Bird’s first two records– recorded with his band Bowl of Fire– are a far cry from the sorts of albums he’s make later in his career. While the Andrew Bird of the late 00s is known for his restraint, his control, his almost eggheaded love for ambience and soundscapes, the Andrew Bird of ten years ago seemed more interested in throwing all of his influences and obsessions into a blender and seeing what strange brew he was left with. The result is an outpouring of Bird’s personality at its most uninhibited, the first sign that he was a true auteur, an artist with a vision so strong it practically dripped from every note. Oh, and it’s a helluva good time, too; both of these records swing with gleeful abandon, totally timeless but thrillingly in the moment. Bird throws swing and jazz and pop influences at each other until he gets an explosion, and his weird lyrics– rife with literary references and quirky rhymes– betray dark themes that would manifest themselves more powerfully on later albums. Both albums are terrific, and very much cut from the same cloth; if anything distinguishes them, it’s that Thrills is a bit heavier on instrumental, and Grandeur is a little rougher and less polished, making the latter just slightly more appealing.
The Swimming Hour (2001)
One listen is all it takes to figure out why this was the last album Bird made with his band before disbanding Bowl of Fire; this is the sound of a creative vision too great to be confined within a group context, pushing against the boundaries of the Bowl of Fire aesthetic and threatening to split the whole thing apart at the seams. Bird’s MO is similar here– like his first three records, it’s a tour de force of traditional pop and folk idioms as filtered through Bird’s dizzying imagination– but the palette is blown up here to include elements of gospel, rock, soundtrack music, and the Latin jazz influences that began to poke through on Oh! The Grandeur. It doesn’t swing as hard as its predecessors, but its kaleidoscopic vision makes it just as addicting.
Weather Systems (2003)
Bird’s first non-Bowl of Fire album since Music of Hair couldn’t be more different from his previous output; the artist has stated that this project was more of a diversion during the recording of The Mysterious Production of Eggs, and it certainly sounds like an experiment, as Bird toys with different tonal qualities with a reflective, down-tempo set of tracks that are more like soundscapes than actual songs, unfolding leisurely and focusing more on mood than in the white-hot energy or genre-hopping eclecticism of the Bowl of Fire records. As such, it’s not one of his most immediately gripping albums, but its gentle charms reveal themselves over time.
The Mysterious Production of Eggs (2005)
In 2005, the indie blog-o-sphere was all abuzz with Sufjan Stevens’ ambitious geography lesson, Illinois, but Andrew Bird quietly trumped that album with this opus, a dizzying display of bright colors and big ideas that seems at first to defy any kind of classification, but eventually proves itself to be nothing less than a pop masterpiece. But this is no ordinary pop– this is a towering, mutant pop masterpiece where songs start off one way before making hairpin left-turns into totally unexpected places. Few albums released this decade can match this one in creativity or vibrant pop colors, but what’s most remarkable is that, for all its experimentation and its many quirks, it couldn’t be more organic, hummable, or accessible. And this is where all of Bird’s lyrical ticks finally come into focus; he’s drunk on wordplay here, spitting out “fake palindromes” and turning a nonsense word (“sovay”) into a battle cry, but, beneath his puns and fractured fairy tales, this is a wildly inventive meditation on– what else?– the elusive nature of creativity, the power of imagination, the importance of childlike wonder, and the dark forces that would have us abandon our creative impulses for something safer, tamer, more domesticated. There’s never been a record quite like it, and, for its contagious sense of joy and wonder, it stands as Bird’s masterpiece thus far.
The Armchair Apocrypha (2007)
The follow-up to Mysterious Production is, well, a very different bird, dark and moody where the previous album was unhinged in its joy and amazement, focused and concise where the previous album was sprawling and unpredictable. Here Bird finds a happy medium between the pop hooks of Eggs and the more somber tones of Weather Systems, resulting in some truly wonderful music– dark chamber pop, languid jazz, even some echo-filled, U2-styled rock. Its consistent hue and leisurely tempo makes it a little less easy to warm up to than its predecessor, but, for its focus and control, it’s a thoroughly impressive and rewarding album in its own right.
Noble Beast (2009)
Bird says his latest record was inspired by classic country and folk idioms, and it’s not hard to hear it– this laid-back, organic set of songs is as lush as the damp forest that adorns its cover. My full review is still to come– stay tuned.