Andrew Bird is a fascinating beast. An indie rock mainstay, he nonetheless deploys whistling as his curious calling card, and the violin as his principal instrument. His two recent contrasting projects – contributing to the soundtrack for the latest Muppets film and composing experimental pieces for New 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 and superficially to be Bird-by-numbers. The essential musical palette -acoustic guitar and violin, topped off with the irrepressible whistling – is carried over wholesale from its predecessor Noble Beast. It also appears to be a lyrical continuation, with opener Desperation Breeds referencing the extinction of bees and deploying a verbose grab-bag of natural imagery. The record clocks in at just under an hour overall, a length bound to test the patience of the casual listener in the age of the MP3.
So, whilst it’s unlikely that Bird will win many new fans, those who have so easily dismissed his work have served to make it stronger over the years, buying Bird room for exploration, which he revels in.Where Noble Beast toyed with verbal structures, the first focus here is musical convention. Danse Caribe starts off as a country lilt and hops over to explore Caribbean rhythms before Bird leads the band off (“3, 4!”) into a bright-skied Irish jig of a coda. Similarly, Give It Away’s titular conceit can’t help but reveal itself – it’s a pop song which has a loose-limbed, schizophrenic jazz episode for its middle third before recovering its composure, continuing as if nothing unusual happened.
Bird’s music here is like baking a cake. Using basic ingredients in deliberate combination, the results are unassuming, but any minor misstep would conclusively ruin the enterprise. Strains of country, bluegrass, folk, jazz, pop, rock and world music are infused, yet they’re never overplayed as scope is balanced with an economy of scale. Begun as “a glorified rehearsal”, as Bird puts it, proceedings were recorded mostly as live with a small group of four musicians on a simple eight-track recorder. This gives an airy and uncomplicated feel, such a deliberate anachronism also serving as a nose-thumbing to today’s digital, multi-tracked industry. In keeping with this, Bird reins in his virtuosity where others might grandstand, favouring the sharper dynamic of group performance as heard in the gleeful gambol of lead single Eyeoneye.
With warm musical groundwork laid, Bird stretches out lyrically in an uncharacteristically open way. Lazy Projector deals with the difficulties of memory applied to a relationship, the narrator wondering why they are where they are and with whom. Similarly,Sifters tackles the possibility of never meeting a soul mate, or being in a position to do nothing about it (“What if I were the night sky?”), but it’s Lusitania that’s the scene stealer. A gorgeous, woozy duet with Annie Clark aka St Vincent, the nautical metaphor fora doomed relationship hinges on the chorus couplet “You’re laying mines along your shore / Through my hull they ripped and tore.” As an idea, it’s something that Bird wouldn’t have even entertained a couple of years ago. When executed in the established context of the album -pitching on cymbal rolls and wordless, harmonised cooing – it’s difficult 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 and recasts Bird’s signature complexity. A little patience pays dividends which, for the first time with an Andrew Bird release, are as emotional as they are cerebral.