Andrew Bird hasn’t changed. At least not on the surface. If you’ve spent at least a little bit of time with any of his last couple albums, you pretty much know what to expect from the guy and the genuine surprise comes from the fact that he does it so damn well. Every arrangement is delicate, effortlessly and intricately blending ukulele, acoustic guitar, violin both played and plucked, staid percussion and that unmistakable whistle. The combinations may vary, and sometimes there’s an electric guitar or two, but the end product is often beautiful, naturalistic and anchored by Bird’s lilting vocals. His sonic adventures show up less on his albums and more in his extracurricular activities, which include a collaborative art installation piece called Sonic Arboretum and heavy work on the soundtrack to the indie film Norman. He’s also the sort of guy that is busy all the time, and when he’s not writing and recording music or preparing some art project he’s typically touring. Last year a documentary called Andrew Bird: Fever Year made its way around film festivals. It captured the final months of Bird’s extremely long 2010 tour in support of his last album Noble Beast and the physical/mental toll it took on him. He had fevers every single day and wound up on crutches due to an on-stage injury. He had worked so hard his body was headed for a full breakdown. It seems fitting then that he took time off in early 2011, settled down in New York, and became a father for the first time. Yet despite his rather massive life changes, his music still comes from the same place. Last fall Bird gathered up his core band of Martin Dosh, Jeremy Ylvisaker and Mike Lewis and returned to the Western Illinois barn where they recorded bits of the last couple long players in preparation for the next one. Break It Yourself is the result, an unflinching yet instantly familiar collection of songs that seeks to impress less with innovation and more with pure songcraft.
Though he’s still working with the same tools and environment as before, Bird tried something a little different when putting together songs for Break It Yourself. Instead of entering his home studio with a bunch of songs that just needed to be set to tape, he instead recorded a series of jam sessions with the band in the hopes something great would emerge. The lack of preparation brought a looseness to much of the album that’s a bit more refreshing than some of the more staid and perfectionist moments on his last couple efforts. Nowhere else will you get such a sprightly and inspired song like “Danse Carribe”, which builds into a blissful African rhythm set against Bird playing his violin with a vigor more reserved for the time the Devil went down to Georgia. There’s something very DeVotchKa-esque about it too, though that may have more to do with Bird’s vocals taking on Nick Urata’s familiar emotional yearn. Almost equally compelling is the shuffle of “Near Death Experience Experience”, the subtle pinpricks of electric guitar causing slight ripples in the track’s otherwise smooth demeanor, like a drop of water falling into a placid lake. A similar punchiness comes through on the bridge to “Give It Away”, which sounds like a slice of an entirely different song before a switch is flipped and it regains its composure in the final 90 seconds. Quick changes like that or protracted intros to songs like “Desperation Breeds” and “Hole in the Ocean Floor” serve well at keeping fans on their toes by breaking with expectation in engaging ways.
Yet there’s also a fair bit of Break It Yourself that stays tried and true to the Andrew Bird way of doing things. The second half of the album feels remarkably familiar, and not necessarily in a good way. St. Vincent makes a positively lovely appearance on “Lusitania”, though it’s a shame she didn’t bring her favorite guitar along for the ride because everything else about the song feels whitewashed and plain. “Orpheo Looks Back” begins with so much promise and energy before running out of steam halfway through. It only fares a little better than “Sifters” and “Fatal Shore”, two languid numbers that have nothing to offer except for their relatively smart lyrical content. If those don’t completely put you to sleep, there’s a singular late album surprise that turns out to be one of the finest pieces of music Bird has ever composed. “Hole in the Ocean Floor” measures itself out across 8+ minutes that may be serene, but are jaw-droppingly beautiful and exquisitely measured. The violins interweave with one another, the ukulele is the gooey center of the track, and that impressive whistle knows just the right moments to make its presence felt. There are barely any vocals, but there’s little need for them given so much is said with the track’s mournful tone anyways. A song like this goes a long way towards making an artistic statement beyond mere convention, and in some ways makes you wish Bird had used the song as a template for the entire album. Instead, it shows up at the end, followed only by the 3 minute instrumental “Belles”, which functions more as time to meditate on the track that came before it rather than something important or essential.
Clocking in at just about an hour, Break It Yourself can feel just a little overlong and downright boring at times. Bird could have cut a couple of songs on the second half of the album and it would have made for a much tighter and brighter experience. Of course when your lyrics are about the decline in bee population (“Desperation Breeds”), death (“Near Death Experience Experience”) and failed relationships (“Give It Away”), even a “brighter” experience may not be as sunny as you’d hoped. Bird has never been the most positive and upbeat songwriter anyways, and has six other solo efforts to prove it. He does continue to grow as a musician and lyricist after all that time, and there’s plenty of evidence on this new record that will grab and hold your attention out of interest for where it will head next. His niche is firmly established and not easily copied which is part of the draw, but it’s his drive to explore those sounds and how they’re used through art and film that makes him the sort of artist you root for even if he comes up short on occasion. Break It Yourself may not be the evolutionary breakthrough Andrew Bird undoubtedly hoped it would be, but its littered with a host of excellent moments and the implied promise that he won’t stop pushing himself so long as we keep listening with eager ears.