For Andrew Bird, the gifted violinist and songwriter whose recordings and stage shows are marked by playful complexity, the time had arrived to put aside some of the mystery and encryption that typically comes along with his albums.
- Cameron Wittig
Break It Yourself, released earlier this year, chronicles that sea-change in approach for Bird, who makes a rare Charlotte appearance Tuesday night at the Neighborhood Theatre. Breaking things down to their basics freed Bird to deliver a record whose music and meaning he deems more direct than any of his 10 previous full-lengths. That meant scaling back on musical arrangements and being more plain-spoken in his narratives. For a guy who's played Carnegie Hall and put together sound installations at the Guggenheim, it represents something of a one-eighty.
"What are you going to do when you're sitting on the couch writing that song and the person you know you're not going to survive the next year with is right there?" the 39-year-old Illinois native says of his inclination toward veiling meaning in metaphor and allusion. "Maybe that leads to a little bit of encrypting. This time, I just found myself in a place where I didn't have to do that anymore, thus this record being more straightforward. It still has songs where I'm following my curiosity into some strange places, but I'm dealing with some universal things and writing about them more matter-of-factly."
That straightforward approach extended to the recording of Break It Yourself. Initially meant to chronicle some demo-like rehearsals at his Illinois barn, Bird and his band — Martin Dosh on drums, Jeremy Ylvisaker on guitar and Mike Lewis on bass and tenor — instead nailed the songs right away, sometimes in just two takes. The record emerged with a rough, unfussy honesty that contrasts with Bird's usual "one-layer-at-a-time puzzle" method. "This is just musicians playing together in a room," he says.
And for those attached to Bird's whimsical scientific and historic inquisitions, nontraditional song structures and layered arrangements, fret not — they're still here, it's merely a question of scale. On the processed chamber pop opener "Desperation Breeds," Bird establishes a favorite narrative theme where science — often in the form of technological innovation — and nature collide. Here, in this global warming "era without bees," desperation is bred by mankind's hubris rather than his innovation, a reminder that the products of our too-often shortsighted ingenuity indelibly shape us as well as our environment.
But as shitty as our relationship with nature is, we don't fare much better in our relationships with each other. The narrator in the pocket symphony-like "EyeonEye" toys with the idea of breaking his own heart to test Tennyson's "'Tis better to have loved and lost" dictum. Over layers of plucked and processed violin on "Give It Away," Bird urges a lover to hide in the hay with him where the foxes and field mice make their dens, away from the world and its "worthless currency."
The wistful "Lusitania" uses two shipwrecks (the sinking of the Maine, too) as relationship metaphors. Bird squirrelled away the line "I'm the one who sank the Lusitania" until the rest of the song revealed itself over time. Linking the two sinkings to their roles in starting wars (World War I and the Spanish American War, respectively), Bird shifted the song — with its lilting melody and male-female vocals — into a battle between warring lovers.
"That's how a song will kind of slowly gather connecting ideas over years," Bird says. "It's like that little branch in the middle of the river that things start to snag on. In the flow of ideas, the good ones will get snagged, and the next thing you know it dams up the river."
Bird's career has taken a similar path. He first came to note as a featured sideman in the eccentric 1990s N.C. act Squirrel Nut Zippers (see sidebar). He then fronted Andrew Bird's Bowl of Fire, where his virtuoso violin — he's been playing since age 4, and learned classical by ear through the Suzuki method — consistently turned heads. Bird seemed to reinvigorate every genre he tackled — early-20th century jazz, gypsy balladry, country blues and folk.
But discovering looping's endless avenues of artistic invention, Bird left Bowl of Fire behind in a direction change that also found him leaving his native Chicago for a farm downstate, where he converted a barn into a studio. When he emerged in 2003 with Weather Systems, Bird had channeled his touchstone influences into an emotionally compelling and timeless new sound. In the process, he became a one-man string section, and Weather Systems featured panoramic soundscapes of pizzicato, bowed and strummed violin threads looped through one another, tapestry-like.
The music buzzed with new ideas, inspired metaphors and thought-provoking comparisons all carried aloft on melodies as compelling and changing as mid-Western skies. The LPs that followed — Andrew Bird & the Mysterious Production of Eggs (2005), Armchair Apocrypha (2007) and Noble Beast (2009) — kept their elegiac sound but tilted toward what Bird describes as a "Muppet Show, Electric Factory" vibe, using everything from dark matter to nomenclature as narrative vehicles for personal and cultural exploration. (Bird even contributed to the soundtrack of 2011's The Muppets movie.)
All the while, Bird was busy blowing minds with his live shows — excerpts from which are chronicled on the Fingerlings recordings he releases through his website. Though occasionally accompanied by various band configurations, as he is on this tour, Bird often performed as a jaw-dropping one-man orchestra, looping violin, guitar, glockenspiel and his extraordinary whistling ability into dizzying sonic textures.
But Break It Yourself's simpler aesthetic altered Bird's show, too. Previous in-depth production meant "throwing out the map" on stage, which kept the songs in what Bird called a "gaseous state" and allowed them to evolve nightly. There's still plenty of improvisation, he says, but the record's more "old-timey" feel creates a whole new show dynamic that now includes a segment where the band unplugs from their electronics to play three or four songs around a single mic.
"It's challenging because you don't have any monitors, you can't hear yourself," he says. "But you end up singing so much better, and so much more in tune, and really projecting so much that your stomach muscles are exhausted after three or four songs. But it's very satisfying and the audience seems to really like it as well."
These old-time performances inspired a mid-tour recording session that gave birth to a new original track, reinterpretations of Break It Yourself songs and covers of the Carter Family, the Handsome Family, Alpha Consumer and Townes Van Zandt, among others. The results are being released as a companion piece to Break It Yourself — Hands of Glory is due on Oct. 30.
For the restless Bird, it's just an affirmation that standing still is artistic death. If that means breaking things back down to their basics, so be it. "It'll always be part of my thing to find a new way to say something," he says.
Playing with a bunch of Nuts
Andrew Bird came to prominence with North Carolina's Squirrel Nut Zippers, the popular Chapel Hill act clumsily lumped in with the swing revival of the '90s. Here, he reminisces on his first prominent role:
"I would say I was always just an auxiliary member — there were already a lot of cooks in that kitchen. I was really close with Jimbo [Mathus] and Katherine [Whalen], and I learned a lot from them. I associate them more not so much with the swing revival as sort of a tradition of eccentric Southern bands from college towns like Chapel Hill or Athens. I put them more with The B-52s or something like that — they came out of wild house parties and the kind of characters you get in smaller communities like that. And it was nice for me to get out of Chicago at the time, where music felt kind of, I don't know, heady up there. I liked going down there and playing with people like Jimbo, where you just get right to it. There's no discussion of intent; it's just fun, you know?"