The first time Andrew Bird’s music graced my ears, I had the good fortune to be outside. On a balmy summer evening in August of 2008, I was in attendance at Tanglewood – the western Massachusetts summer residence of the Boston Symphony Orchestra – meandering around the manicured lawns in preparation for a show being headlined by Wilco. Jeff Tweedy’s post-Uncle Tupelo band has never really sported the image of fiery rock and roll rebellion, but in a venue whose only steady guitar slinger is James Taylor, it felt at that time like I was gearing up for a Motorhead concert. Indeed, the opportunity to observe this singular collision of indie cool and classical elitism held as much sway for me as the music itself.
Chicago’s best known ex-Squirrel Nut Zipper happened to be the opening entertainment that night. Now, violins are about as ubiquitous at Tangelwood as Italian sausages are at baseball games, but I was wholly unprepared for the fiddle melodies that began to waft out of the Koussevitzky Music Shed when Andrew Bird began his set. While people sprawled out on the verdant lawn to stake out their spot for Wilco, Bird’s eccentric folk rock conjured a sublime atmosphere; between the hazy blue of the distant Berkshires Hills and the smoldering colors given off by the setting sun, it was an unexpectedly disarming moment.
In retrospect, Bird was the quintessential equalizer that night. On a hallowed stage where strains of Brahms and Beethoven are commonplace, it seems altogether fitting that a guy raised on Debussy and Bartok who also sports a bachelor’s degree in violin performance was tasked with bridging the gap between Ode to Joy and “Handshake Drugs.”
It was only after the concert that I took the time to further investigate Bird’s studio catalog. Impressive by any account, his technical acuity and robust voice are as indelible as his command of the English language, which he often spins out with the finesse of a poet. 2009’s Noble Beast found Bird’s violin and whistle prowess taking center stage and providing something of a pivot point for his alternately stark and festooned songs. Whether recalling his jazz revival roots or diving into the austerity of traditional singer/songwriter fare, Bird’s used his two main axes with aplomb, seeing to it that a sturdy melody was always in place to help maintain balance.
Like his peers the Decemberists, Bird has an uncanny knack for deriving emotional resonance from our world’s trivialities. Adele and Katy Perry will always sell more records because their burnished odes to the resilience of the human spirit touch everyone on a surface level, whereas a song about, say, the declining bee population lacks a certain mainstream immediacy. Yet, for every pop fan who would toss this off as blatant pretentiousness, there’s another who understands that music is often more fun when organic emotions are examined in a less direct fashion.
For someone who often takes a circuitous approach to his art, Break It Yourself might be Andrew Bird’s most forthright offering yet. The aforementioned mainstays of his palette are still firmly in place, but Bird’s deliberate decision to record most of the album live and invite in some collaborators – St. Vincent’s Annie Clark being the most notable – brings some accessibility to an artist sometimes derided for being stubbornly esoteric. The man’s peerless whistling ability and idiosyncratic fiddling often outshine his many other talents, but on Break It Yourself, Andrew Bird’s masterful fusion of musical idioms – jazz, folk, country, and pop – comes to the fore.
If there is a unifying concept present, it’s undoubtedly the ocean. Musicians and authors have used the sea as a metaphor for existential examinations since the dawn of time (Debussy’s La Mer comes to mind in this case), and Bird is just the sort of aesthete who can make breathe new life into an antiquated concept. “Danse Carribe” discreetly references rhythms of the Carribean with a buoyant waltz groove that gives way to an infectious hoedown. The imagery of “Lusitania” is more overt, with the honeyed coos of Bird andClark heightening the effect of the hazy guitar harmonies and cymbal washes. “You keep sinking all of my ships,” Bird sings. For a song that uses a sunken cruise ship as allegory for a failed romance, the song does an admirable job of balancing tones of sweetness with those of sadness. “Sifters” utilizes the “many fish in the sea” cliché as a vehicle to probe the story of would-be lovers who never meet. Despite Andrew Bird’s obvious command of pop structures, it’s still the 8-minute epic “Hole in the Ocean Floor” that speaks the greatest volumes. An undulating blend of propulsive folk rock and spectral orchestral ambience, the track symbolizes the murkiness and solitude of the depths with droning keyboards, moaning vocals, and ethereal string harmonies.
The presence of death and decay is hard to ignore on Break It Yourself, but Bird’s nimble juxtaposition of such weighty topics with pop music conventions prevents things from devolving into omnipresent darkness. “We’ll dance like cancer survivors / like we’re grateful simply to be alive,” he sings on the hypnotic “Near Death Experience Experience.” It’s this sort of wide-eyed optimism that lends Break It Yourself immediate appeal. A good whistle now and again doesn’t hurt either.