ANDREW BIRD: ARMCHAIR APOCRYPHA (2007)
1) Fiery Crash; 2) Imitosis; 3) Heretics; 4) Dark Matter; 5) Plasticities; 6) Armchairs; 7) Simple X; 8) The Supine; 9) Cataracts; 10) Scythian Empire; 11) Spare-Ohs; 12) Yawny At The Apocalypse.
The title has a very nice ring to it, and it is well certified that both the title and the album itself stem from Bird's fervent passion for armchairs. How could such a passion remain undetected when there is a budgerigar on the album cover? If you do not immediately spot the connection between common pet parakeets and armchairs, you are unlikely to be eligible for the fan club.
But it does not take a true fan to understand that Apocrypha continues the trend: Bird is making himself look bigger. The record is louder and jumpier, and the first noticeable thing about it is how much more guitar- (particularly, electric guitar-)based most of the songs are; on this record, the violin is degraded from the status of ruthless monopolist to that of a valued, but contractually restricted partner. One explanation is the everlasting quest for new sounds and sensations; the other is that record buyers generally fall for guitar-based music easier than they do for violin-based one, what with the people still rolling over Beethoven and telling Tchaikowsky the news after all these years, and, true enough, the record became Andrew's biggest seller to that point (meaning that it actually sold something).
Grim facts, however, indicate that the changes are but superficial. Quite symbolic of everything that this album is is 'Imitosis', essentially a rewrite of 'I' from Weather Systems, with the same main hook of "we're basically alone", but with the addition of booming electronic drums, guitars, chimes, background vocals, and cosmic sound effects. Oh, and a surrealistic video to boot. But as imaginative as the rearranging is, does it truly add up to the original feeling of the song? Not the way I see it, at least.
I judge, therefore, that if you do not think an artist like Bird deserving of spending your patience upon his earlier, less accessible, records, Armchair Apocrypha is a good introduction to what he is, always was, and, most likely, forever will be. Long-time fans, however, may be disappointed if they were expecting some sort of spiritual growth or development. On the other hand, long-time fans who think of Bird as a nice lad with a good ear for melody rather than the 21st century Buddha of pop music will find plenty to dig.
Because, for instance, 'Heretics' is just a great optimistic pop song with a luvverly strings arrangement; when the chorus goes "No, we don't want to hear the sound of a draw", then, provided you are a human being with the capacity of crying rather than a walking brick wall, I predict that, after one or two listens at most, you will be perfectly willing to agree that you really don't want to hear the sound of a draw, regardless of what that sound might sound like. (I'm pretty sure some people will say it's an anti-Bush song, but I do not even want to conduct any research on that). So is 'Plasticities', a cheerful song about fighting for music halls and dying cities driven by a sort of simplistic retro-style Brit-pop guitar riff in the chorus, and 'Dark Matter', which is nowhere near as dark as the actual matter, and...
...well, now that I think of it, the attitude has shifted: more drums and guitars mean less brooding melancholia, which, along with the violin, is now confined to select entities ('Armchairs'; 'Scythian Empire', probably the only song in existence to unite Scythians, Achaens, Thracians, and Haliburton under one roof; the short instrumental 'Supine', of obvious superficial appeal to linguists but, unfortunately, devoid of lyrics, so we never get to know just how well Andrew has studied his Latin grammar).
So it's up to everyone to decide what is more precious for history — a cloudy, gloomy Andrew Bird, or a loudy, boomy Andrew Bird. My own verdict is, of course, a thumbs up, but mixed in with a little disappointment. It's wonderful to know the man can find a major enough popular appeal to combine artistic integrity with financial stability, but a little sad to know that he has, most likely, reached the summit of his artistic mountain and that there's nowhere to go from here but in the direction of gravity's pull. Fortunately for us all, he's such a light fellow that gravity does not affect him all that much.