Noble Beast (Fat Possum, 2009)
by Andrew Bird
originally published at Dusted Magazine
Word has it Andrew Bird is poised to hit the big time with his eighth album. That’s fine: heaven knows he deserves it, and so does he. Chances are he also knows he’s been ready to hit the big time for about three albums, since The Mysterious Production of Eggs at latest. But it’s inappropriate to expect him to alter or dilute his fidgety NPR-folk symphonies in order to sell more records, which is in turn why it’s not so inappropriate to find in the title of his last EP, Soldier On, a hint of churlish bemusement.
Noble Beast, said eighth album, does not sound calculated to attract a wider swath of the market – but it’s easy to mistake it for something that is. By all reasonable accounts, it’s the least weird album Bird has ever made, comparatively free of erudite lyricism and ostentatious musicianship; it’s subdued and rigorously presentable and nowhere near as smarter-than-you than, say, Armchair Apocrypha. Consider, though, that those qualities were probably selling points for some, and that those were the people who still actually go out and pay money for recorded music.
Instead, the relative diffidence of Noble Beast squares with the breakup-album chatter surrounding it. It has a warm, uncertain humanity that its predecessors, for all their depth and beauty, did not: it scans as genuine, music made from necessity rather than from the impulse of an extraordinary showman. It’s not as radical a shift in dynamic as Sea Change was for Beck, but that’s a pretty good precedent to think about – the line between cleaning up one’s act and baring one’s soul. Bird doesn’t do any bloodletting here, but he’s less evasive than ever, and that counts for a lot.
Not to say that this nakedness is the same as simplicity. The fancy stuff is still here, just not indulged, not an end unto itself. In terms of airtime, Bird probably uses his polyglot violin and eerie whistle as much as he always has, but both are used seamlessly, practically hidden. The same goes for his endless repertory of slant-rhymed, $5 words and arcane geography (see “Tenuousness”). The prominent themes here are elemental and messy – infancy, quietude, estrangement. The word “disaster” seems to come up a lot.
Several whole songs on the album radiate this new sincerity: the frank “Effigy,” the desperately dignified “The Privateers.” They’re not ballads, but they flesh out both a subject and an object, stick to the story in a way unheard since his Bowl of Fire records. But the most special moments on Noble Beast are the little mid-song intrusions, the tacked-on bridges and codas that barely belong structurally or lyrically, as in the bridge of the lovely “Anonanimal” or when “Masterswarm” breaks its bossa nova cool for a linear passage (“So they took me to the hospital / They put my body through a scan / What they saw there would impress them all / For inside me grows a man”) that abruptly introduces a narrator at once complex and sad and perfectly real.
Given Bird’s avowed perfectionism, these chinks in his armor are all the more gratifying, all the more reason to root for Noble Beast to effect his leap “from cult phenomenon to pop star” (NYT). All the same, it leaves a funny taste vis-à-vis the better (Eggs) and more accomplished (Apocrypha) pop albums that got him this far. Even as the most candid moments here cast into relief what can be annoying in the artifice of his earlier work, they fail to represent Bird as he should be according to those who revere him already: eclectic and a little pompous, clever almost to a fault, apt to orchestrate the shit out of his every whim whether or not you follow. That he sounds so down-to-earth here isn’t that impressive if you have nothing invested in his flights of fancy, but it’s weird to get behind Hemingway all of a sudden when you’ve grown up reading Michael Chabon.back