In a March 2008 post titled "Words Will Tell" on the New York Times's Measure for Measure songwriting blog, Andrew Bird delved into his own process, specifically his inspiration for the song "Oh No," which opens his new album, Noble Beast (Fat Possum). On a flight from New York to Chicago, he explained, he'd been seated behind a terrified three-year-old who screamed, "Oh no!" over and over again. Struck by the mournfulness of the little boy's wail, he finally found it more moving than annoying. "So when I got home," Bird wrote on the blog, "I picked up my guitar and tried to capture the slowly descending arc of that kid's cry. It fit nicely over a violin loop that I had been toying with which moves from C-major to A-major."
That anecdote pretty much sums up one of Bird's chief weaknesses: he seems to handle the emotional content of his songs with the detachment of a lab technician. He comes close to acknowledging this in the same post: "Meaning or 'the truth that's in my heart' usually reveals itself well after the record is released. I'm often surprised that the things I care about actually end up in my songs.... I'm really an instrumentalist who sings words and if you care to pay attention you might enjoy them."
If you rolled your eyes just now, well, you'll find plenty more to dislike about Andrew Bird. He's been embraced by middlebrow cultural arbiters that cater to the "unique millions" skewered on the blog Stuff White People Like—not just the New York Times but also NPR, which debuted Noble Beast as an exclusive stream on its Web site. (Bird doesn't have his own SWPL entry yet, but there are posts on "Public Radio" and "Indie Music.") And his demeanor suggests he sees this favored status as his right. "Almost every breath contains some fragments of an escaping melody," he writes at Measure for Measure. "If I shape my lips so as to whistle, my breath will take on a musical shape like sonic vapor." Oh, and he does whistle—he's probably the premier whistler in pop music today.
All that said, I don't observe a strict "three strikes" policy with artists who commit offenses against my personal sensibilities. And Bird, who's racked up easily seven or eight counts, still gets a pass. For one thing, his pretentiousness is at least mostly earned. He's exceptionally talented, balancing an extensive formal education in music (and the structured approach that generally comes with it) against the music-as-play philosophy more often associated with self-taught amateurs. And thanks to his open ears, his passion for vintage styles and his love of dreamy experimentation tend to reinforce each other instead of clashing.
Noble Beast is filled with juxtapositions of the traditional and the freewheeling. Melodramatic cabaret violin carries the lead on the dark pop number "Nomenclature," but then late in the song it's suddenly overwhelmed by a wall of overdriven guitar. "Not a Robot, but a Ghost" reveals the influence of Minneapolis electronic musician Martin Dosh, an unlikely favorite collaborator of Bird's—a frequent member of Bird's touring band, he appears on 2007's Armchair Apocrypha and is credited with "percussion, looping, keys" on Noble Beast. Here Bird departs even more dramatically from his usual old-timey posture and ends up as far away from his comfort zone as he's ever seemed. "Not a Robot" is built on a beat that alternates between a flickering, IDM-inflected loop and a hip-hop thump pieced together from a pitch-dropped kick drum and hand claps; its driving rhythm and coating of distortion give it an aggressive feel that's almost entirely absent from the rest of his catalog. It sounds a little like something from Radiohead's In Rainbows, though that might just be coincidence—when I interviewed him for another publication in 2005, Bird insisted that the only music he listens to is the stuff he makes and the stuff he overhears coming out of cars, stores, and neighbors' apartments.
Though parts of Noble Beast make it seem like Bird is pushing the parameters of his style, elsewhere he slips comfortably into formula. "The Privateers" is only barely better than generic, Starbucks-ready folk pop—it might be the catchiest tune of the batch, but it's also the one that sticks closest to basic verse-chorus structure. Lyrically it's a rather pedestrian love song, which makes me miss Bird's usual eccentric touches—I think that's why I like it when he pronounces "here" as a faux-southern "heah." It's as though he knows the tune is a too-small box, and he's propping open the lid with that affectation so he can get back out.
"Fitz and the Dizzyspells" is every bit as precious as its title would suggest, and it's mostly Bird's skill and polish that prevent it from sounding like one of the thousands of other retro-tinged indie pop songs made by the Wilco fans of the world. Worse, his vocals keep creeping into Chris Martin territory—even if you take him at his word about his peculiar listening habits and assume he couldn't possibly be imitating Coldplay, even unconsciously, it still happens too often for my tastes.
Even when Bird gives us complex and evocative lyrical wordplay ("Let's get out of here/ Past the atmosphere/ Squint your eyes and no one dies or goes to jail"), he usually sings like someone doing a staged reading. Strangely, he delivers what's probably his most impassioned vocal performance on "The Privateers," the song with the crappiest lyrics. There's a hint of jazz phrasing to his light, high tenor and some real vulnerability in the way he holds onto notes for a fraction of a second too long—an effect that creates a strange tension with his ironic fake drawl.
What it all comes down to is that nothing on Noble Beast does much to move me emotionally. The album is pretty, sometimes ravishingly so, but it just doesn't have the weight it'd need to be really beautiful.v
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