Andrew Bird: “Noble Beast”
(Editor’s note: A different, much shorter version of this review will appear in the March issue of Christianity Today.)
The title of Andrew Bird’s latest is a bit of a lark—no pun intended. The album’s called Noble Beast, but the songs are all about what it means to be human. Bird is no stranger to penning tracks about the elusive and the intangible qualities of life—his previous masterpiece, The Mysterious Production of Eggs, was all about creativity, imagination, and childlike wonder—and here he once again brings his signature wit and whimsy to bear, dropping ten-dollar words and complex cadences and somehow making it all sound effortless and eloquent.
In fact, the album is somehow his most sophisticated as well as his most organic– Bird’s most mysterious production yet. It’s as lush as the damp, mossy forest that adorns the album’s cover, and as natural, sounding almost as if Bird didn’t write and arrange these songs, but simply found them growing somewhere, and now presents them, picked and preserved, for the listener’s careful consumption. In other words: It’s the most straightforwardly enjoyable album yet, and even as the complexity of his craft deepens, so too does his skill at making it all seem so easy. With only a couple of exceptions, these songs eschew the twisted, mutating song structures of Mysterious Production, not taking crazy hairpin turns but, rather, stretching out in just the direction you hope they will. Gone too are the murky atmospherics and dark textures of Armchair Apocrypha; in their place, Bird has made an album that’s light and bubbly and astonishingly graceful.
He says the album is inspired by classic country and folk idioms, ranging from Kris Kristofferson to the Everly Brothers. That doesn’t mean he’s converted his violin into a fiddle, and he certainly hasn’t developed a twang in his voice, but the album does capture the spirit of great country and folk music in how simple it all sounds– though of course, it isn’t simple at all. Bird perfects his lush studiocraft here with his richest musical tapestry yet, a laid-back but wildly imaginitive bed of strings and whistles and percussion and studio effects, all of which he harmonizes perfectly to serve as vessels for his typically strong hooks. In a sense, Bird’s gift is the same as Nick Lowe; he makes careful, meticulous craft sound casual and tossed-off, and it’s that tension that gives this recording an uncommon depth.
The appearance of simplicity in the music stands at odds with the words, which are even more twisted and difficult to penetrate than ever before. But Bird is a master of sound, and the rhythms and cadence of his lyrics is gloriously musical, which makes these tongue-twisting rhymes fun to sing along with even as they tease and riddle with a a plurality of meanings. It isn’t until one of the last songs, “The Privateers,” that the album’s central themes come into view. One of Bird’s most devilishly funny songs yet, the track finds him looking a life insurance salesman square in the eyes and telling him to buzz of, pleading with the man to value his humanity more than to speak of him in the past tense.
It’s a familiar theme for Bird, but he takes it in new directions on Noble Beast. Rooted in previous Bird classics like “Imitosis,” these songs wage war against whatever the forces– be they science or commerce or simple disbelief– that would seek to reduce human existence to anything less than sacred, dignified, magical. He’s a romantic through and through, and that childlike wonder still leaves a gleam in his eye and a slight twinkle in the way he sings a song like “Anonanimal,” wherein purely carnal, animal existence is cast aside in favor of something spiritual and profound. Serene though the music may be, these songs are searching, at times with intensity. Beneath the layers of wordplay and the weird non-sequiters is the sound of a man who knows there’s more to life than what he sees, and he looks for meaning in the context of relationship, offering us the cautionary tale of “the man who spent too much time alone.”
It is, in sum, a new high watermark for Andrew Bird, a simple twist of an inspired formula. If Armchair Apocrypha was just a bit too dour and ethereal for its own good at times, it’s now seen to be an important step for Bird; it brought him focus and clarity after the freewheeling adventure of Mysterious Production, and it provides the foundation for this wonderful recording, which is simply a joy to listen to. It’s possible that Bird employs his trademark whistle more than ever here, and it isn’t hard to figure out why– this is the most straightforwardly enjoyable record of his career, and it just so happens to be as accomplished and multi-faceted as any album he’s made. It takes someone with vision to make something so layered sound so natural and direct, and to make something so intellectual feel so delightfully fun to sing along with. And that makes this a noble album, indeed.