Like Piazzola, Weill or Morricone, all of whom are arguably influences, the music of Andrew Bird has that unmistakable quality of unmistakability. Before he has even opened his mouth to sing about those things that only he sings about, you know him by the percolating pizzicato rhythm beds, the High Plains whistling and its companion glockenspiel, the intensely lyrical, “classically trained” violin-playing and the tremolo noir guitars.
Even without those signature sounds, you’d know him by a distinctive harmonic and rhythmic language born of swing, old folk, cabaret and Beatles, but bearing few identifiable traces of influence. It’s a sound so rooted, organic and complete that it seems inevitable and “already there,” but at the same time entirely his – the achievement of an utter, hermetic idiosyncrasy: that Bird thing.
Bird’s remarkable recording career is closing in on 20 years. When the data are in, those who care about such things will probably regard 2005’s Andrew Bird and the Mysterious Production of Eggs as the point at which he became the historic Andrew Bird – one of those moments of sudden animation, convergence and artistic birth. Of course it had its antecedents, and a natural history.
About five years before, he and his band Bowl of Fire had made The Swimming Hour, an excellent rock record that broke clean of the stylized swing revival and macabre, Gorey-inspired themes of his earliest efforts. (Bird was briefly a member of those exemplary stylized swing revivalists, the Squirrel Nut Zippers.) Two years after that, the exquisite chamber folk of Weather Systems foreshadowed many of the elements for which he would become famous – notably the cloistered, Minimalist warmth of his one-man-band, loop-based performances.
But the aptly titled Mysterious Production of Eggs is the one: a Baroque, prog/folk masterpiece that made Andrew Bird someone of whom you had to have an opinion. It might still be the most fully realized expression of his vision as multi-instrumentalist and composer/arranger; though, in truth, you get the whole-cell Andrew Bird – with all its micronutrients in the proper balance – in pretty much everything that he has released since. So if it is what you like (and it is what I like), you are good to go. Hipster fashion will move on – already has, to a degree – but as one of those rare self-invented and self-actualized artists, Bird is and will always be your only reliable and authorized dealer of “that Andrew Bird thing.”
Bird’s music is conceived, arranged and played with such comfort and grace that it is hard to imagine anyone disliking it…until he opens his mouth and all the discomfort commences. His voice itself is a folksy and personable concern in its plainsong mode: impressive, even virtuosic when given to melismatic flights in the Jeff Buckley/Thom Yorke vein. So that’s not the issue. It’s his lyrics – intellectual, difficult, fragmented, densely referential and dystopian – that send hordes of potential fans scrambling for the Mumford & Sons. Until very recently, Bird has never sung about girls and girl problems. That, as you surely know, is unacceptable.
As with James Joyce or any mighty Modernist, if your knowledge and education don’t align closely with Bird’s, if you don’t swim in the same pool of cultural obsessions (disease, accidents, eco-disasters, ancient history, science, corporate paranoia et cetera), then you are going to have to get through these songs with only a ballpark sense of what he is on about most of the time. But that doesn’t mean that the songs don’t make sense or hold up to analysis; they do.
This came clear to me because I just happened to own the requisite knowledge and authorities to really grok his song “Measuring Cups,” a modest and pretty folk tune buried in the middle of Mysterious Production of Eggs. The song is about intelligence testing, Industrial Age social philosophy, the bowdlerization of children’s literature and the role of sanitized, centralized art and myth in cleaning the dirty hands of empire. When I saw it all come together, it was a “Good God!” epiphany. “Measuring Cups” doesn’t simply make sense; it presents an alarmingly coherent argument, a unified cultural field theory in song. Forgive me for assuming, then, that all his songs would yield a similar opulence of meaning, were I only equipped to get them or willing to do the Google legwork.
His lyrics are a groping, vertiginous and queasy response to his own way-deep grasp of things. Andrew Bird is too, too smart. His fans pretty much accept that about him now. We even cheer him on as he tries sportingly to be somewhat less smart on his two most recent companion releases, Break It Yourself and Hands of Glory. On these albums, and in his choice of live covers (Townes Van Zandt, Handsome Family, traditionals), he expresses an implicit longing for a solid-ground simplicity that will never, ever be his. It’s a very real, heartrending pathos, assuming that you have not acquired the popular reflex of doubting the sincerity of smart people. And, in any case, the thoughts in his swimming head are borne on music of the purest natural beauty.
Big kudos to the Bearsville Theater for its ambitious and even heretical booking of late: Os Mutantes, Richard Thompson, the Duke McVinnie Band residency and now two nights of the great Andrew Bird with special guest (and frequent Bird collaborator) Tift Merrit on Thursday and Friday, July 25 and 26. Please do the right thing: Get out there and encourage this odd behavior.
Andrew Bird with Tift Merrit, Thursday-Friday, July 25-July 26, 9 p.m., $40, Bearsville Theater, 291 Tinker Street, Woodstock; (845) 679-4406, www.bearsvilletheater.com.