As a fairly mediocre musician myself, Andrew Bird is typically the kind of performer I love to hate— he was a talented violinist at the precocious age of four; he plays every instrument under the sun with perfect ease; he has headed successful bands that easily stride the gamut from pre-war jazz, to zydeco, to blue grass infused folk. Oh, and he’s a virtuoso whistler. And yet I find myself completely disarmed by his March 2012 release, “Break It Yourself“.
I think it must be the bare sincerity of Bird’s songwriting that makes this folk rock album so irresistibly charming; it is ingenuous and whimsical, free from rigidity or any reliable conventions. Much like the most recent Bon Iver album, several of the songs flout the structures of modern songwriting—stretching into expansive vocal swells, or else swooping into low orchestral waves. I can almost see my music theory professors shaking their heads in amazed confusion.
And how to achieve all this without the appearance of pretension? Bird punctuates the track listing with simple, stripped down ballads, or friendly, upbeat jaunts. Apart from guitar, he uses a variety of instruments, from lap steel to violin, and even his impressive whistling abilities, to buoy the songs from classic folk to something newer and infinitely more fun. After completely failing to narrow the tracks down to a few favourites, I can only offer up a few which I think typify the varied talents and imagination that appear in every song.
“Lusitania” is what I imagined Andrew Bird’s album would sound like when I first heard of him—sweeping, simple melodies, lifted more by pleasing harmonies than by any bold instrumentation. “Danse Carribe” is the type of track that would kill at a festival, picking up from a slow, bare opening to a frisky full-band hoedown, complete with fiddle. “Near Death Experience Experience” is a haunting and unusual song (it floats somewhere between sensual and dark), helped along by a female vocalist who appears on several tracks. And “Sifters” is the perfect example of Bird’s ability to craft a love song so heartbreakingly sweet that it is almost a lullaby.
The album as a whole is a lesson in perfect sequencing. The variety in “Break it Yourself” could be almost chaotic; but the record is arranged so that each song feels like both a respite and a continuation of the previous track. Bird even added a prelude (vocal), interlude (strings), and postlude (bells, and a few cheeky crickets), which draw attention to the album as a collective work rather than a jumble of individual tracks.
At a time when many bands add layer upon layer to a track until it is bursting with instruments and vocal effects, Bird’s restraint and pared down simplicity is refreshingly modest. In the end, I am willing to overlook his disgusting monopoly on musical talent because he doesn’t rely on it to lift his work above the usual standard—it is the newness and ingenuity of every track that sets them apart.