Produced by Mark Nevers
January 20, 2009
Chicago-based songwriter and indie superstar Andrew Bird garnered peculiar amounts of attention after his 2005 release of The Mysterious Production of Eggs. Since then a relentless schedule of gigs, a successful album and EP release, and spots at larger festivals like Chicago’s Lollapalooza have driven Bird to surpass his contemporaries. Add on top of that success a writing gig at the New York Times and you’ll wonder how Bird does it all.
Last week brought Bird’s latest effort, Noble Beast, and the record is a definite success. Noble Beast was recorded in Nashville, slightly outside of Bird’s comfort zone. He admits in an NPR interview that he was nearly isolated during the making of this album and actually approached all the songs by recording vocals first. Typically, Bird worked with a rhythm section to lay down the main parts of a song before even tackling the vocals. Producer Mark Nevers, who has worked with the likes of Calexico and Silver Jews, recorded the album in his home studio working mostly with Bird alone. Occasionally, drummer and loop engineer Martin Dosh, a long-time collaborator and friend of Bird’s, would send recordings of loops to help push the songwriting process along.
The elegant opener, “Oh No,” will cause any Andrew Bird fan to smile, as a sweeping string progression is followed by Bird’s signature whistling. The surreal but amusing post-chorus advises, “Let’s get out of here / past the atmosphere / … wearing nothing but a onesie and a veil.” The song dynamically maintains a soft and light attitude, and another round of whistling closes the track. The first handful of songs are admittedly slow-paced, but that doesn’t render them boring. “Fitz & Dizzyspells” actually starts with a solid pulse, breaks down into a freer section, and returns to the original beat to showcase Bird’s fiddle skills.
“Effigy” is a lilting, Irish-influenced tune that exposes Bird’s vocals. The lyrics intensify with the harmonies sung by Kelly Hogan, Bird’s friend and an artist herself. The song addresses the dire condition of being alone and the associated fear of isolation. Bird’s haunting perspective becomes apparent when he sings that “It could be you / it could be me.” Loneliness is a shared fear, and Bird likens it to a character sitting at the bar, having “fake conversations on a non-existent telephone”.
While the first half of the album unfolds slowly, the second half is much more rhythmically and lyrically intense. “Not a Robot, But a Ghost” uses a combination of electronic drum samples and pseudo-handclaps to provide the backing for a sliding melody and a dirty guitar. Wordplay is found throughout “Anonanimal” as the opening line reads: “I see a sea anemone / the enemy see a sea anemone / and that’ll be the end of me.” The song is just voice and strings until the 2:50 mark when a drum beat and electric guitar darken the song while simultaneously driving it forward.
Bird achieves heaviness through the urgency of his lyrical content and vocal delivery. Slower arrangements lend themselves to display the strength of Bird’s voice and pizzicato violin tone. The smooth blend of violin and voice, both often doubling the same melody (beautifully so at the end of “Anonanimal”), give the songs a sophisticated and emotional feel that is absent on Bird’s previous release Armchair Apocrypha. Singing about more general feelings and situations in our everyday world (“Natural Disaster,” for example, tackles disease and sickness), Bird has achieved a rare musical triumph: making a relevant and accessible album utilizing the strengths he has developed as a songwriter and performer. With just the right mix of whistles, violin, and electronica, Noble Beast may be too humble a title for a record by an artist who is sure to continue making important, meaningful music.