The first time I heard Andrew Bird was in a book store. Someone had the brilliant idea to play Armchair Apocrypha as the soundtrack for the sleepy, early morning readers and coffee-drinkers. When I noticed the music softly emanating down to me from the speakers above (though it seemed like God himself was sending it to me), I literally stopped in my tracks and listened. I asked the guy at the counter what was playing. I bought the album right then and there.
That was 5 years ago, and I was 14. It changed my life.
Needless to say, I’ve enjoyed Noble Beast just as much, and have been anticipating this new album for 3 years. I’ve been talking about it nonstop on my radio show for months, my listeners are probably fed up with hearing about it. But now they can actually hear it for themselves.
As always, Bird is soft. Bird is morning music. But he takes a departure on Break It Yourself from his previous albums. For one, he’s letting more people share the work. Looking at the contributors page of the booklet, I’ve never seen so many names. In past albums, Andrew had done every (or nearly every) instrument himself. But here he collaborated with 8 other musicians. Break It Yourself seems to contain more connected and cohesive individual songs when compared with the last, Noble Beast. It also seems to be Bird’s most real and organic album so far. Recorded in his barn on an 8-track, he’s never sounded so clear and alive. His violin sings as if its very frame was made from the wood of surrounding trees, like its soul belongs there. His lyrics seem to have pushed past the clever loquacious phrases that heavily pepper so many of his other songs. Though the eloquent lyrics of past albums are charming and mysterious, the words of Break It Yourself touch straight at the listener’s heart, showing lyrics don’t always have to require a dictionary to understand. The album is nonetheless complex, and often times it’s hard to discern whether what you’re hearing should make you feel gray or think of grassy fields and sunlight. But it really doesn’t matter.
1. Desperation Breeds…
The album opener somehow manages to bring mystery and content to the table at the same time. It carries on this way until Andrew sings loudly from his core. It’s sprinkled with distortion on the guitar, adding to the space-like soundscape. Those familiar with “Anonanimal” from the Noble Beast album will no doubt hear the similarity in the violin plucking. But I don’t care. He can reuse themes all he wants. They’re brilliant.
One of the brighter and sunnier songs of the album. It only lasts 45 seconds, showing that Bird hasn’t lost his taste for creating mini-masterpieces. I love the way he can pluck chords on his violin as if it’s a guitar or ukulele or mandolin. I also love the quiet babbling in the background. To me, the song sounds like a child being bounced on the knee of a grandparent on a porch, or walking carefully through a field of tall reeds.
3. Danse Caribe
I can see this being an initial favorite of many listeners. It brings back the memories of the prairie I never had. Line dancing, secretly holding hands with the blacksmith’s son in church, picking apples from the orchard. It’s all smiles and freckles to me. Bird’s fiddling shows the scope and versatility of his talent. Give him any style of music to portray on his violin, and he can do it.
4. Give It Away
Another sunny tune, the first with supported vocals. It’s a slight throwback to the Armchair days, where he had a female singer back him with lofty harmonies. Some distortion thrown onto the violin plucks near the middle, but then it’s back to the farm for more innocent flirting.
“Would you hide in the hay?
Would you hide in the hay with me?
Won’t you hide in the hay
Where it’s dark and we can scarcely breathe or see.”
I’ve known Eyeoneye for a month or so now. I was too eager to hear and couldn’t resist buying the single from iTunes when it was released. I’m glad I did, though. It gave me a nice taste of the differences I should brace myself for. However, Eyeoneye feels the most disconnected from the album to me. Characterized by a moving electric guitar part, it’s catchier, more singular, and faster-paced than any of the others. Not to say it’s not an amazing song. It is. I didn’t think Andrew Bird could be so mad. But he is here, and it’s awesome. There are a few people I’d love to sing this song to. I love the male backing vocals. Whoever is singing with him has a wonderful voice. I also love the vague 50’s influence around 0:55 and later around 2:11. It’s easy to see why this was chosen to be the single, and why the album is named after part of the lyrics.
6. Lazy Projector
The intro of this song sounds like it belongs to a different artist. I don’t think the faint, ghostly vocals that begin the song are Andrew’s. It’s beautiful all the same, but it always throws me off. It fades and soon enough we hear Andrew, back again with more vague 50’s influence and a whistle riff. This song includes the most relationship-y reference I’ve ever heard come out of Andrew Bird’s mouth. If he ever is singing about a relationship, he hides it craftily. Here, however, he makes no effort to bury it in a witty phrase.
“They say all good things must come to an end
Every day the night must fall
But how it all came to this I simply can’t recall
Too many cooks in the kitchen
Oh how the mighty must fall
But I can’t see the sense in us breaking up at all”
7. Near Death Experience Experience
A sense of uneasiness encompasses me as the song begins, but I’m intrigued. I continue to listen only to be seduced by a sensual melody, reminiscent of “Imitosis” from Armchair. It’s very dark and sexy, with an underscore of discomfort and morbidity. Another first favorite.
“And we’ll dance like cancer survivors
Like you’re grateful simply to be alive
The prognosis was that you should’ve died”
8. Behind The Barn
Another short instrumental. It serves as a great transition out of the previous dark track and into the next lazy one.
Lusitania is the album’s most notable departure for me. The vocal choice surprises me slightly. Annie Clark of St. Vincent takes the lead uninterrupted for a good 40 seconds. A beautiful song to be sure, peppered with more whistling, 50’s guitar patterns, and references to the sea.
10. Orpheo Looks Back
I am a bird soaring over a wheat field swaying with the strong wind. A storm is coming. I love the thicker sound and the long stretches of instrumental breaks. Bird’s occasional rough bow strokes add a rawness I’ve never heard him expose. It seems like Andrew and the gang had a blast recording this. Particularly at 3:30 when the layering gets heavier, and someone is going “ch-ch! ch-ch! ch-ch!” over the music. I love it. Another favorite. I feel like this song is going to stick with me forever.
Sifters was easily my first favorite. It begins brightly. The strange strikes on the glockenspiel are off-putting at first. But then combined with the lyrics, it turns sad. I guess “sad” isn’t quite the right word. Reflective, maybe. It reminds you that time isn’t relative to love. It’s a lullaby, and makes you feel small- like looking at the night sky. The thin instrumentation works perfectly: measured, crystal clear plucks on the violin and guitar, with occasional sweeping sways from the violin.
“What if we hadn’t been born at the same time
What if you were 75 and I were 9
Would I come visit you
Bring you cookies in an old folks home
Would you be there alone
What if we hadn’t been each other at the same time
Would you tell me all the stories from when you were young and in your prime
Would I rock you to sleep
Would you tell all the secrets you don’t need to keep
Would I still miss you
Or would you then have been mine”
*NOTE: This is an older version of the song. The new version was not available on YouTube.
12. Fatal Shore
I really like the way he says “easy-ah”. Another title that references the sea. I guess in a way the sound of this song is reminiscent of the ocean. It’s watery and relaxed. There’s also a slight effect on Andrew’s voice and the guitar which makes it sound like it’s coming from the depths of the ocean. The female backing vocals are like rays of sunlight breaking through the water. A sense of foreboding ends the song with these lyrics:
“If you could see right through us
You’re gonna run into your homes and lock your doors”
If anyone can understand the deficiencies of the human race and the pitfalls of the heart, it’s Andrew Bird.
*NOTE: No video available
13. Hole In The Ocean Floor
Another ocean reference. An 8-minute masterpiece. This sounds like it could be the score to a documentary about animals that live in the sea. It’s so organic and alive. A monarch butterfly fluttering over hills, a shining fish swimming through coral. It sounds simple on the surface, but it’s really an intricate weaving of melodies- I hear at least 5. It’s always impressed me that Andrew Bird can make wonderful songs without aid of percussion of any kind.
*NOTE: No video available
Aptly named, Belles is characterized by clear ringing bells with a lot of depth. Nothing but light harmonics on the violin and cricket chirps accompany them. It’s like being on a rocking chair outside in the dark, with breeze flowing through wind chimes. I never want it to end, though ironically it brings the album to a close. A beautiful way to wake up or fall asleep.
*NOTE: No video available
However cliché it may sound, Break It Yourself is a journey; a 14-track story that puts your mind into a different place. It is indeed a commitment. The single-song lover will have a hard time liking any particular track from the album (except perhaps “Eyeoneye”). You can’t go in to the album expecting every song to be a fast-paced hit. But within the context of the album as a whole, it’s impossible to dislike any of it.
Though Break It Yourself is punctuated with changes, it’s clear that the Andrew Bird we’ve known and loved for so long will never be lost. The album is a masterpiece, expertly and intricately crafted. An astounding violinist, singer, whistler, and lyricist, Andrew Bird continues to prove himself one of the most intelligent (if not THE most intelligent) of all musicians creating music today.
Congratulations on yet another beauty, Andrew. And here’s hoping for many more to come.