Friday, December 30, 2011

Andrew Bird: Noble Beast (2009)

(Fat Possum)


What is it about Andrew Bird that makes him so damned adorable even as he sprawls out on nutty musical tropes and weird instrumental preoccupations that can ramble on into twenty-second or six-minute tangents? What makes his preciousness and fierce literacy endearing and never (at least, almost never) annoying? I think we like him -- we love him, in this house anyway -- because of his craftsmanship: the way he can turn a dirge like "Masterswarm" into some galvanizing foray into oblique semi-swing jazz, the way he constructs this fifth solo record as more or less entirely a document of his own mastery of the violin, yet manages to present simultaneously his most immediately appealing collection of songs so far. That in itself is an act of invention, even if Bird's music itself never sounds exactly new.

It's easy to get lost in his technical expertise, especially on this album that opens with him in not-so-rare form, crooning and whistling his way through "Oh No" -- the word "sociopath" never sounded so warm and fuzzy, never before was repeated so incessantly it lost all meaning in twenty seconds. But that's the thing, it's the melody, the oddball words, the strange and delicious bounce, that you end up concentrating on after just a minute. Because against everything else, Andrew Bird's gift is songwriting. From Weather Systems on, his music's been built not on gimmick but on the delicate and infinitely charming tangential style that winds through so many back-and-forth structural lurches but always comes across perfect, unfailingly seamless.

As calculatedly calm as they can sound, these songs frequently hide unusual and subversive elements under the surface. On "Nomenclature," a classic Bird title if there ever was one, a calm but slightly upside down melody bounces out in front of a wildly unorthodox backdrop along the lines of "I Get Around." He injects a bit of West Africa, even, on "Anonanimal" -- there's a richness to the music here that hasn't been glanced at by Bird before, and for the first time he seems totally subservient to it. While we're on the subject, he's a knack for this because of his skill as a vocalist, an enormous talent for making his often barbed words sound deeply felt; perhaps he who "speaks with perfect diction as he orders my eviction" is an ideal mirror image of our hero.

The singing helps elevate his more conventional singer-songwriter material, make it intoxicating even. "Fake Conversations on a Nonexistent Telephone" eventually comes round to that, with a more nude structure than usual, after a vaguely Slavic opening tidbit. When he plays around, it's a thrill -- dig the rhythmic fits and trickery on "Effigy" -- but in complete command, he's something of a master. The vocal and musical control he exhibits on "Natural Disaster" shows him as a subtle braggart, taking the reins of all of its bracing beauty. And there's so much going on behind that smug exterior, the William Castle playfulness lurking underneath the cautious calm of "Not a Robot, But a Ghost" -- to call it "quirky" or "twee" is too dismissive, it's all too wry and warm for that.

Make no mistake, there's a cult of personality in place here; I can't think of any other performer I'd actually be praising if I called one of his or her songs "polite rock music," but that's an apt descriptor of the ace "Fitz & Dizzyspells," and it's a compliment. Bird may suffer from a bit of the traditional Paul McCartney problem -- he just does his thing and he's the highest-class of experts at it, but because he's so constantly at it and doesn't really push himself constantly for new directions, it's easy to ignore him. To do so would deprive you of the achingly desolate "Souverian," pop bliss despite seven minutes eighteen seconds, the song of the album and one of his finest to date; and if that's all too drawn out for you, there's the pure beauty of something like "Masterswarm," the ecstatically sunny reveal on "Tenuousness," and all of the nooks and crannies his infinitely expressive singing and playing get us into. Just listen and forget everything except how lovely it all is.

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