“Let’s get out of here/past the atmosphere” implores singer/songwriter/multi instrumentalist Andrew Bird in “Oh No,” the opening track of his latest effort, Noble Beast. Listening to his rich soundscapes — immaculately constructed down to the last note — Bird’s simple lyric begins to take on increasingly added significance.
Noble Beast is by no means a revolutionary, atmosphere abandoning effort. Bird strays only moderately from the standard pop structures he has gradually adopted ever since ably crossing over from the world of classical music. Yet, his instrumental acuity is such that even tunes eerily similar to his previous work yield a bounty of new discoveries.
The violin introducing “Oh No” sounds extraordinarily familiar in a way, as if sprung from the confines of some old 45 but also gorgeously original with its tone of measured romanticism. The melody, which Bird extracted from the utterance of a small child seems just right, almost as if Bird put into song everything the little boy felt when he cried “oh no.”
In fact, each of Bird’s arrangements is an adventure in and of itself as evidenced by one of Beast’s standouts, “Anonanimal.” Though seemingly titled by Flight of the Conchords, it assuredly swings through a variety of moods created by the clash and combination of Bird’s swelling violin, up tempo guitar picking and lyrical dalliances with consonance and rapidly morphing meters. Ultimately, Bird coos and his violin weeps, making one feel a great deal for whatever an “anonanimal” is.
Also featured is Bird’s recent experimentation — assisted by collaborator Martin Dosh — with unconventional percussive rhythms. “Not a Robot, But a Ghost” begins with a spare digital-inflected beat seemingly offered by Thom Yorke before the addition of a full drum kit propels the insistent rhythm to the forefront.
Similarly, Bird’s guitar playing has matured to the point that his fingerpicking even propels selected songs such as “Natural Disaster” rather than merely providing the pleasant rhythmic background. One could easily assume it was Paul McCartney who composed the guitar line, fresh off of writing “Blackbird.”
More pop revivalist than mere formalist, Bird mainly employs spaced, unconventional timbres to avoid structural monotony. Whether it’s the violin plucking, the whistling or the glockenspiel playing, Bird never quite stops refracting his melodies through various mediums. After all, “Tenuousness” is essentially the repetition of the same melodic phrase, first by guitar then eventually by violin, bass and Bird’s ethereal whistle.
Lyrically, Bird sticks to his long held conviction that words exist to serve the melody and not the other way around. It is the sound and rhythmic quality of each syllable which seduces Bird rather than the literal meaning of the words themselves. Stanzas such as “Under the elders/the older get younger/the younger get over/over the elders/and under the elders/pretend that you’re older now” from the peak of the album, “Souverian” sound equal parts nonsensical and wonderfully poetic.
Fortunately, Bird is as witty as he is melodically perceptive. In “The Privateers,” Bird issues the most elegant rebuttal of product pitchmen in recent memory, singing “Don’t sell me anything/Your onetime offer so uncalled for…” with all the appropriate emotional inflections.
The only pseudo-fault of Beast is that it cannot compare to Bird’s much darker masterpiece, The Mysterious Production of Eggs. Granted, the musicianship is better than ever but Beast simply lacks the emotional punch of Bird singing “You’re what happens when two substances collide/ And by all accounts you really should have died” on Eggs. It is easy to point to that line alone and understand the album as a treatise on life and the various difficulties involved in its creation and conclusion. No such thesis is provided for Beast other than vague allusions to invented creatures and animals.
By now it is well established that Bird is a meticulous artisan of sound. It appears, however, that amidst all his perfectionism he has lost sight of the big picture. Even the highlight of the album,”Souverian” is left stranded without any songs kindred in spirit to support its masterful atmospheres. Still, Noble Beast is worth hearing for those small pleasures alone. We are never quite sure what it all adds up to but to quote one of Bird’s previous albums: “Oh! the Grandeur.”
Noble Beast is a reconciling of the tenderness and openness of The Mysterious Production of Eggs with the edginess of Armchair Apocrypha (Armchair Apocrypha and …Eggs being his previous two albums). It’s not so much of a balancing act because the darkness that preoccupied Armchair Apocrypha is mostly gone. Both in lyrical and tonal measurements, Noble Beast is a much more cheerful record.
The deluxe edition (Noble Beast and an album of instrumentals, Useless Creatures) packaging is excellent.