The act of classifying Andrew Bird’s music into a conventional genre for conversational purposes has plagued me for long enough. In fact, I’m delegating the act to a mental laundry list of resignation entitled “Shit I Will Never Do,” where it sits securely above solving a Rubik’s Cube and learning how to dance to rap songs.
Bird has, over the course of several releases under his own name, been just as likely to wax “Fiddler on the Roof,” showcasing his classically-trained violin chops, as crank up the feedback on his guitar amp, shoot the whole mess through a loop station and whistle an endearing, occasionally eerie—always catchy—“Birdesque” melody over the whole thing.
Cheesy, I know. But in my defense, no other adjective does justice to the recognizably eclectic atmosphere Bird first cultivated on 2003’s brilliant “Weather Systems,” which has continued to reproduce with an ease I imagine causing even the most accomplished singer-songwriters to roll over in their sleep, wincing with envy.
None of that unique aesthetic is missing on Bird’s latest album “Noble Beast,” though Bird’s refreshing originality—once the most striking feather in his cap—has now become his greatest curse.
I don’t mean to imply that “Beast” doesn’t stack up with Bird’s past releases. In fact, all the usual tricks are here: a disarmingly hummable opening track (“Oh No”), head-spinning, interlocking melodies from another universe (“Anonanimals”), and of course Bird’s trademark wordplay—which usually flies right over the heads of even the most self-proclaimed literate of English majors. It’s just that the novelty has worn off.
Bird does take some creative steps outside of his comfort zone, most notably on the up-tempo, initial stand-outs “Fitz and the Dizzyspells” and “Not a Robot, But a Ghost,” but the rest of the album crawls at a slower pace revealing a more subdued Bird and the predictable come-down soundtrack to 2007’s sprawling “Armchair Apocrypha.”
Fans of “Apocrypha” will initially lament the absence of dizzying countermelodies and grandiose ambition on “Beast,” replaced by simpler rustic musings backed by subtle acoustic plucking, Bird’s soft croon and the occasional string flourish. But where “Beast” comes up short on hooks, it compensates with staying power.
Album gems “Effigy,” “Natural Disaster” and “Souverian,” despite lacking the quirky dazzle emblematic of Bird, utilize quiet melodies that slowly inch their way into the cranium where, ideally on a rainy afternoon, they start to take hold. Unfortunately, this simple-is-better aesthetic is disregarded the moment Bird opens his mouth, spewing out a jumble of hyper-erudite lines that read more like a Scrabble game between T.S. Eliot, Thomas Pynchon and Stephen Hawking than anything resembling a song.
This alienating lyrical train-wreck becomes almost cringe inducing on “Tenuousness,” when Bird enigmatically mumbles:
“Tenuous at best was all he had to say when pressed about the rest of it/ the world that is/ from proto-Sanskrit Minoans to porto-centric Lisboans/ Greek Cypriots and Hobis-hots/ who hang around ports a lot.”
To his credit, the redeeming melodies Bird attaches to his encyclopedia-referencing lyrics just manage to alleviate the frustration that comes with having to Google every other word he sings.
If only “Noble Beast” was the work of some other indie auteur, I could be singing the praises of a delicately arranged, heady folk-pop album ingeniously tied up neatly with bucolic violin figures and, of course, that damned flawless whistling. But I’ve come to expect more from Andrew Bird.
For an artist who has made a career out of creating his own genre, so much of “Noble Beast” comes off as self-indulgent and predictable, or as Bird sings on album highlight “Effigy”: “like the words of a man who has spent too much time alone.”