The title of his latest album is no doubt a winking provocation, but perhaps Andrew Bird is right.
Obvious things out of the way first: it’s his best-sounding record yet. OK, it has the usual contemporary unsubtle mastering job that ensures My Finest Work Yet is several times louder than the jazz records from which it takes its sonic inspiration. However, the small-band arrangements and Rudy Van Gelder-inspired recording techniques Bird and his producer Paul Butler favoured for the recording sessions (the band tracking live together in a big room with no separation), give the songs that most precious and rare commodity in all forms of recorded music these days: space. Luxurious acres of it.
So, frankly, Bird had me on his side from the moment he premiered Bloodless, the album’s second track. Its glorious drum sound, fat but not overpowering, and gorgeous piano tone quite overruled any concerns I had about Bird building his song around the hook “it’s an uncivil war” – a sentiment that, while a decent summation of today’s political landscape, is not exactly trippingly on the tongue. The effectiveness of a pun is somewhat diminished when the shape of the melody barely gives you enough time to enunciate the syllable upon which the pun depends.
We’ve started, then, with the second of our obvious things. Bird is a words guy of long standing. But when you make lyrics and your delivery of them the focus of your music, you encourage your listener to nitpick. Bird is a far more imaginative and risk-taking lyricist than 95% of songwriters, and he’s very good. Brilliant at times, in fact. The first verse of Sisyphus is ingenious but also funny:
Sisyphus peered into the mist
A stone’s throw from the precipice, paused.
Did he jump or did he fall as he gazed into the maw of the morning mist?
Did he raise both fists and say, “To hell with this”, and just let the rock roll?
But in pushing himself so hard, Bird is also apt to fall over himself. When things go wrong, as on the second verse of Sisyphus (a song which I should say I do like enormously), the result is a pile-up of contorted polysyllables barely contained within the metre and stressed in the wrong places, with – more important – a tune you can’t hum:
I’d rather fail like a mortal than flail like a god, I’m a lightning rod
History forgets the moderates
For those who sit recalcitrant and taciturn
You know I’d rather turn and burn than scale this edifice, yeah
I’m enough of a stick in the mud to find this a problem. Sure, personal taste and blah, blah, blah, but if you value economy and precision, Bird may infuriate as much as he delights.
Fortunately, lyrics aren’t the only component in pop music, and musically Bird is rarely less than superb. If you’re unfamiliar with him, Andrew Bird is a singer-songwriter who plays 5-string violin and guitar, but is principally a violinist making frequent use of loops of his violin playing within a live-band context, often pizzicato (ie plucked) melodies, rather than bowed lines. He’s also a champion whistler, with an enviable controlled vibrato, and a great sense of when to deploy his whistling chops to create instrumental hooks. Consequently, his music is pretty much a one-of-a-kind affair. As much as he shares kinship with some of the Largo crowd – Jon Brion, Aimee Mann, Fiona Apple – he sounds little like any of them.
So, some reservations about Bird’s more outlandish lyrics (which I wanted to get out the way early) aside, My Finest Work Yet starts very strongly. Sisyphus and Bloodless are definite album highlights.
Third track Olympians spins its wheels a little, but the album hits what may be its highest point with fourth song Cracking Codes. A sparse, piano-led ballad, it builds patiently over the course of a vocal verse, a bridge and a second instrumental verse in which the piano carries the main melody while Bird whistles a counter-melody, to its climax, in which Bird’s voice is harmonised by bandmate Alan Hampton and a guesting Madison Cunningham. The blend of the three voices gives me chills.
Here’s a live version of Cracking Codes.
Fallorun, by contrast, is almost shockingly conventional indie rock by Bird’s standards. It even starts with some guitar feedback. It does give drummer Ted Poor a chance to play two and four at a moderate-fast tempo, a rarity for him within Andrew Bird’s music, and he seems happy to go at it. The chorus melody is fine, but it’s one of those songs that yields all the pleasures it can offer in half a dozen plays, and it hasn’t kept me coming back like Sisyphus, Bloodless and Cracking Codes have.
After a free-time intro, the main violin melody of Archipelago is as warm and comforting as a hug. Lyrically, though, it’s another song that seems to address the polarised political climate (“We’re locked in a death grip and it’s taking its toll/When our enemies are what make us whole. Listen to me: no more excuses, no more apathy. This ain’t no archipelago, no remote atoll”). The song’s humanity – wisdom, even – ensure that the big ending, in which the backing vocals follow Bird’s in a call-and-response fashion, feels earned rather than by the numbers.
Proxy War begins with a funky side-stick drum intro, over which bass and piano are joined by layers of Bird’s violin and (I think) a distorted guitar – an arrangement that nicely mimics an R&B horn section. The chorus switches to 7/4 time and Poor gets to play some cool fills. One of the least lyrically dense tracks on the album, it works as a mood lightener, and offers a sort sideways reminder that long ago Andrew Bird began his career playing violin with the Squirrel Nut Zippers.
Manifest – Bird at his most pastoral – reminds me strongly of Laura Veirs in its west coast setting, G major chord sequence and the string arrangement. I doubt it’s deliberate, but the resemblance is marked. It’s not structurally knotty or lyrically complex compared to other Bird songs, but it’s another one of the album’s high points for me: a lovely, unhurried song.
Don the Struggle begins like Bird chanelling Benny & the Jets. It’s thudding, stompy pulse eventually gives way to a double-time 7/4 section with Bird’s vocal exactly following the beats. While it was no doubt a struggle to write a lyric to fit the metre, he makes it sound surprisingly natural. As tension and release, the song works effectively, but it’s the tension part that keeps me coming back. Bird got it right, I think, by keeping the 7/4 part a brief mid-song interlude and having the song end with his dramatic violin solo over the 4/4 sequence.
The album ends with Bellevue Bridge Club. Its verse – built on a rudimentary drum pattern and a basic two-chord sequence strummed on electric guitar, with Bird playing his 5-string violin in its viola range – can’t help but sound like a Velvet Underground pastiche, which ordinarily would not do anything for me at all. Fortunately, after about a minute, Bird quits his Lou Reed impression, Poor locates his hi-hat, the song acquires a groove and the harmonies (with Madison Cunningham again) take the song somewhere far satisfying. It’s a fine end to a fine album.
Over the course of a dozen solo records, Bird’s music has become a little less unconventional than it was at the beginning of his career, with more songs that follow standard pop chord sequences and structures. This has had the tendency to make his records more cohesive and consistent, and to be honest, more to my taste. I’m sure he’s lost fans along the way, too – it’s impossible for a songwriter to grow in any direction while pleasing everyone who was into their work at the start. So, as I said up top, calling his album My Finest Work Yet is a good-humoured provocation. He might be right, though: it’s tighter than 2016’s Are You Serious, his voice gets better with every record, the playing is superlative and the sonics, at least by modern standards, are impeccable.
I’m seeing him at the Barbican next week, with Cunningham in support, and I can’t wait.