Break It Yourself (Mom and Pop, 2012)
by Andrew Bird
originally published at Dusted Magazine
Here we go: Album No. 10. Obscure national treasure status holding steady, wisecracking-professor croon fully charged. Maybe this time around the world will finally realize... no, no, let’s stop right there. Andrew Bird has gotten plenty of mileage out of being the best-kept secret of overeducated babysitters and their patrons, the guy everyone at the fair trade coffee bar can agree on. It isn’t – OK, we aren’t – a particularly exciting demographic, but we don’t murder our darlings for sport, either. This is how Bird has found himself, for some time now, in a dangerous place for an artist to be: the place where he can do no wrong.
No question, there’s a lot that’s wonderful about Andrew Bird, on album 10 as on all the rest: his way of stacking loop on top of loop to build tableaux of improbable depth and dignity; his penchant for all things outmoded, from the multiple registers of his violin to the thoughts and landmarks he spins into his lyrics; the fact that he is, in the early 21st century, a guy who uses words like “sea anemone” and “crosscurrents” and “blunderbuss” (probably, somewhere) in pop songs rather than sea chanteys.
And no question, there are some moments on Break It Yourself that catch him at his disarming best: the candor and stillness of “Sifters,” the ebb and flow from “Fatal Shore” into “Hole in the Ocean Floor,” the Bros.-Grimm vibe of “Give It Away,” the refrain of “Lusitania” (“we don’t study this war no more”). It is still true, at least in a vacuum, that Andrew Bird can do with absolute simplicity what it never even occurs to anybody else to do.
Except that somewhere along the way absolute simplicity has become the enemy. The artisan of these ornate and droll tone poems has a shadow personality, and that personality is a florid, priggish showoff. Bird’s charm has always depended heavily on his ability to keep that guy in check; on Break It Yourself, he just doesn’t seem to be trying very hard at all. Shadow-Bird is all over this album, carrying on as though a reputation for smartness and virtuosity is the important one to uphold. Good old Bird, the sweet and (relatively) modest one, pipes up here and there, but mostly seems unwilling to risk tripping over his shadow.
Risk aversion is, of course, the soundest way to fuck up the place where you can do no wrong, and perhaps that’s the chief frustration with this album. Nothing in particular is wrong with it (there is an Instagram tie-in, which is best left un-unpacked), but nothing in particular is right, or direct, or passionate: just skillful. Some songs sound like dutiful rehashes of work from prior albums – compare, for instance, “Near Death Experience Experience” with “Imitosis.” Some songs just amble along in overweening erudition, usually interrupted by some tourettic splooge of fiddle solo or thesaurus shavings. There’s no point to prove, not even one to belabor. We know what he’s capable of. Unbowed, Shadow-Bird keeps on insisting.
That’s readable in two ways: as a sign of Bird getting lazy and bearing down a little too hard on his laurels, or as a sign of Bird trying to earn more adoration from those of us who don’t yet know how rewarding an Andrew Bird album can be. If the latter, this is the wrong way to go about it: the songs on Break It Yourself are too heavy-handed, too wrought, even to soundtrack whatever equates to a Wes Anderson movie in 20 years. He’s not playing to his strengths; he’s succumbing to preciousness. He’s better than that, and so are we.back