Andrew Bird is a fascinating beast. An indie rock mainstay, henonetheless deploys whistling as his curious calling card, and theviolin as his principal instrument. His two recent contrasting projects – contributing to the soundtrack forthe latest Muppets film and composing experimental pieces forNew York’s Guggenheim Museum – have found him equally at home.
Swapping such highbrow surroundings for a barn on his Illinois farm,the self-produced Break It Yourself appears initially andsuperficially to be Bird-by-numbers. The essential musical palette -acoustic guitar and violin, topped off with the irrepressiblewhistling – is carried over wholesale from its predecessor NobleBeast. It also appears to be a lyrical continuation, with openerDesperation Breeds referencing the extinction of bees and deploying averbose grab-bag of natural imagery. The record clocks in at justunder an hour overall, a length bound to test the patience of thecasual listener in the age of the MP3.
So, whilst it’s unlikely that Bird will win many new fans, those whohave so easily dismissed his work have served to make it strongerover the years, buying Bird room for exploration, which he revels in.Where Noble Beast toyed with verbal structures, the first focus hereis musical convention. Danse Caribe starts off as a country lilt andhops over to explore Caribbean rhythms before Bird leads the band off(“3, 4!”) into a bright-skied Irish jig of a coda. Similarly, Give ItAway’s titular conceit can’t help but reveal itself – it’s a pop songwhich has a loose-limbed, schizophrenic jazz episode for its middlethird before recovering its composure, continuing as if nothingunusual happened.
Bird’s music here is like baking a cake. Using basic ingredients indeliberate combination, the results are unassuming, but any minormisstep would conclusively ruin the enterprise. Strains of country,bluegrass, folk, jazz, pop, rock and world music are infused, yetthey’re never overplayed as scope is balanced with an economy ofscale. Begun as “a glorified rehearsal”, as Bird puts it, proceedingswere recorded mostly as live with a small group of four musicians on asimple eight-track recorder. This gives an airy and uncomplicated feel,such a deliberate anachronism also serving as a nose-thumbing totoday’s digital, multi-tracked industry. In keeping with this, Birdreins in his virtuosity where others might grandstand, favouring thesharper dynamic of group performance as heard in the gleeful gambol oflead single Eyeoneye.
With warm musical groundwork laid, Bird stretches out lyrically in anuncharacteristically open way. Lazy Projector deals with thedifficulties of memory applied to a relationship, the narratorwondering why they are where they are and with whom. Similarly,Sifters tackles the possibility of never meeting a soul mate, or beingin a position to do nothing about it (“What if I were the nightsky?”), but it’s Lusitania that’s the scene stealer. A gorgeous, woozyduet with Annie Clark aka St Vincent, the nautical metaphor fora doomed relationship hinges on the chorus couplet “You’re layingmines along your shore / Through my hull they ripped and tore.” As anidea, it’s something that Bird wouldn’t have even entertained a coupleof years ago. When executed in the established context of the album -pitching on cymbal rolls and wordless, harmonised cooing – it’sdifficult to find fault with a single note.
Disparate and idiosyncratic yet still unified and every day, Break ItYourself is a record which is beguilingly simple but retains andrecasts Bird’s signature complexity. A little patience pays dividendswhich, for the first time with an Andrew Bird release, are asemotional as they are cerebral.