Get real: the year 2012 in music

Andrew Bird

Andrew Bird

My son and I, we drive. It’s what we do: up the Thruway, down the Thruway. Route 28 to Zena Road or to Phoenicia, sometimes as far as Allaben. Winter, spring, summer and fall. And always, there is music. I keep us between the lines and under the limit. Eamon deejays from an iPod. We dispute, describe, compare, theorize or just listen. It’s a rolling multi-generational nerd show.

As Tom Waits gives over to St. Vincent, Of Montreal to Bright Eyes, the Tallest Man on Earth to Dirty Projectors, Animal Collective to Fountains of Wayne, one issue keeps rearing its head: Call it universality versus idiosyncrasy. Says the Universalist: Ye shall write no songs that can’t be performed by beginners around a campfire. The measure or your greatness shall be whether they want to sing your song, not whether they can. Says the Idiosyncrat: Ye shall write no song that sounds like any other song ever written by anyone else, except when you are being consciously referential. Your greatness will be measured by the verve, originality, depth and sustainability of your vision. Universality? Moot. The ideal idiosyncrat is her own universe fully realized.

2012 became known to Eamon and me as the year that a couple of favorites “got real” – in other words, forfeited some of their precocious originality in an attempt to move a couple of steps toward the herd, to connect in more conventional, direct and simple ways. Ah, ‘twere simplicity only that simple!


What if you’ve made your name and fame in music being: quirky, clever, eccentric, difficult, elusive, brainy, novel, fussy, cerebral, Baroque, self-invented? In context, any of these might be a compliment, but all of them also suggest a deficiency of heart: You may be smart, but you ain’t “real.” The brainy lack emotional connection; the eccentric revel in childish egocentrism, building castles of their own scat; the difficult sell snobbery; the cerebral just don’t get the populist essence of pop; the clever value a superficial novelty over the proven rules and tools of the masters. They invent wheels that never took nobody home.

So now you find that you want to get real, to slough off your protective layers of obscurity and connect with heart and honesty to yourself and to your fellow. Careful there, Jack, for you might learn the hard way that your idiosyncrasy is also the seat of your genius. Your talent abides by unspoken rules and resides within invisible boundaries. Stray at your own peril.

Mark well the Shins’ 2012 effort Port of Morrow. James Mercer is as great a melodist as pop rock has produced since Sir Paul, his eccentric but vulnerable lyrical persona borne along by jumpy melodies that are as inventive as they are inevitable. But here, he seems desperate to shed the coat of quirkiness and to connect. More, he wants to mentor, to console, to let the kids know that everything is going to be all right in simple songs.

Some people take naturally to that homiletic role, but Point of Morrow is one of the most disappointing releases of the year – all the more for the clinical, threadbare production at the hands of Greg Kurstin, the outrageous super-genius composer/arranger of The Bird and the Bee. The marriage of Mercer and Kurstin promised Baroque pop brilliance. Instead, we got an “Everybody Hurts” moment of calculated directness.

So getting real is perilous, but it is possible. Eamon and I are inclined to agree that on some of the best albums of 2012, the artists achieve a new, invigorating directness and lucidity without violating the terms of their odd Muses.


Andrew Bird: Break It Yourself

Bird’s 2012 release sounds exactly like an Andrew Bird record. The grooves build off percolating pizzicato loops. All the usual swooping elements swoop away: the melismatic voice and violin, the virtuosic whistling. The songs are as arcane, historical and scientific as ever; but it is easy not to care about comprehension, so stunning and emotive are his melodies and performances. Sing sweetly to me of Scythian empires, Andrew, and of eugenics, epistemology and the bowdlerization of children’s literature…

The easing of Andrew Bird happens on several levels on Break It Yourself. It is his most band-oriented, least insular record to date. He gives the band rein. They jam some. He plays bitchin’ violin solos. The style is still a progressive, Baroque folk, but the song forms relax and play out with a Minimalist, meditative patience. As for his lyrics, this seems to be an album of heartbreak manifested metaphorically. It’s hard to say what the upset is; it may have as much to do with Caribbean politics and the plague of the honeybees as with, say, a girl.

“Give it Way” may be addressed to a lover or to the Bush family. Hard to tell, but either way someone done him wrong. The exquisite adaptation of the myth of Orpheus, “Orpheo Looks Back,” may be about relationship duress or about the end the world. “Lazy Projector” and “The Sifters” find Bird expressing formal sentiments in highly accessible extended metaphors, and the new transparency suits him rather well.

Says Eamon: “While he is obviously going for a more approachable and less alienating vibe, he doesn’t sacrifice sophistication.”