This past summer I found myself on a 2,000 mile road trip with a middle-aged woman whom I did not know well. Of course road trips mean listening to music, and lots of it, so, what to choose? She played her Irish jigs, and I was disinterested in the spellbinding repetition. She had never heard of Radiohead, and couldn't sit comfortably after two songs. I thought we hit a point of no agreement until I spotted Andrew Bird on my iPod. I pressed play on 2001's “The Swimming Hour”, and peace was made. She was interested in his traditional violin technique, while I was moved by his flowing arrangements. We steadily listened through each of his records and soon we were both singing along. Bird possesses the rare ability to comfortably reflect a world of traditions in a four-minute pop song.
Fresh out of college, Bird began his recording career with “Music of Hair”, showcasing his violin skills and his fascination with American and European folk traditions, as well as jazz and blues. After forming the band “Andrew Bird's Bowl of Fire”, Bird released three consecutive albums that were seemingly written by an early-twentieth century globetrotter. The songs aren't just influenced by the sounds of folk, pre-war jazz, gospel, Latin, zydeco, and rock. They seem to be straight adaptations of traditional tunes. This was an emotional rebellion from Bird's academic training that stressed the intellectual side of music making. Bird embraced improvisation, contradicting the values of his classical music education. In addition to his lead work with his “Bowl of Fire,” Bird found commercial exposure through collaborative work with “Squirrel Nut Zippers” between 1996 and 1998. With their MTV hit, “Hell”, The Squirrel Nut Zippers headlined the “swing revival” that took place in the mid/late 90's, providing Bird with hope that his passion for the past could be embraced within economic reason.
While The Squirrel Nut Zippers managed to sell-out their shows, Bird's Bowl of Fire couldn't seem to gather audiences larger than 40 people. In response, Bird reluctantly took his first solo gig. Bird experimented with a looping station, whistled on stage for the first time, and after a great response he realized that there was a new future for his career. Recording and performing solo, Bird indulged simplicity. With his next three records, Bird focused his songwriting and arrangements on an indie-folk sound and embraced studio production. In turn, “Armchair Apocrypha” managed to reach 76 on the Billboard 200 and was accompanied by rave reviews. 2009's “Noble Beast” maintained Bird's audience while displaying his influences more literally than the previous successes. 2012's “Break it Yourself” and “Hands of Glory” take that idea even further, returning to the Latin and bluegrass sounds of Bird's early work.
Bird's manager, Andrea Troolin, writes, “In his first couple of albums, you can hear a lot of his influences. I think it was a matter of him getting that out of his system in some ways and figuring out what an Andrew Bird song sounds like.” As much as Bird's early career was based on replication, he has recently managed to formulate a distinct sound. Bird has found a way of sneaking anything from the sounds of 1930's jazz to southern gospel into what may sound like a hip indie-rock track. Look at “Danse Carribe” from 2012's “Break it Yourself”. The song introduces a swung folk verse, moves to a contextually obscure Caribbean-style breakdown with complicated rhythms, and then begins a double-stop violin solo, a sound reminiscent of bluegrass. Bird has found a way to intertwine numerous cultural references... only to produce something that sounds entirely unique. Listening to Bird’s most recent work is an adventure of sorts.
While some artists' lyrics are directly confessional, and others' claim no reason behind the text, Bird finds a middle ground between the two approaches. Bird doesn't deny the personal depth of his lyrics, but has explained that he looks to keep the meanings of his songs private. He designs the lyrics intentionally, in part to protect his privacy and also for own sanity, considering the rate at which he performs. Mixing meaning into obscure and veiled lyrics, Bird manages to “forget” the original intent of the text, identifying new meaning in the lyrics, as if he did not possess the mind and heart that composed them. While this perspective makes the artist appear especially private, it is interesting that Bird admits that there actually is reason and personal thought behind his text. This compares with the many artists who deny that any statements are made through their art.
Even as Bird looks to privatize his thoughts and feelings, there are some fairly blatant points that manage to... sneak out. “Tables and Chairs” off of “Andrew Bird & the Mysterious Production of Eggs” reveals a connection to the Christian faith. Bird speaks in a fairly humorous manner about what sounds to be the end times. He sings:
I know we're going to meet some day
in the crumbled financial institutions of this land
there will be tables and chairs
there'll be pony rides and dancing bears
there'll even be a band
cause listen, after the fall there will be no more countries
no currencies at all, we're gonna live on our wits
we're gonna throw away survival kits,
trade butterfly-knives for adderal
and that's not all
ooh-ooh, there will be snacks there will
there will be snacks, there will be snacks.
His point may not be confessional, but he is making an overlooked topic relevant to the listener. While some may seek to understand the metaphor behind “pony rides and dancing bears,” the idea is less allusive to someone of the Christian perspective. Bird's text reminds us that words and music can have meaning without being limited to only one meaning. It is in this space that reflection can flourish and questions can be nourished.
- Michael Bass