ANDREW BIRD: NOBLE BEAST (2008)
1) Oh No; 2) Masterswarm; 3) Fitz & Dizzyspells; 4) Effigy; 5) Tenuousness; 6) Nomenclature; 7) Ouo; 8) Not A Robot, But A Ghost; 9) Unfolding Fans; 10) Anonanimal; 11) Natural Disaster; 12) The Privateers; 13) Souverian; 14) On Ho!
Scary — but the well seems to be running dry. From the beginning, Bird has chosen the honorable, but risky path of trying to say something new with each album: staying true to his own unflinching personality, yes, but still travelling the long exciting road from «neo-swing» to neo-whatever, adding influence upon influence and new trick upon new trick. With Armchair Apocrypha, he'd molded his sound closer to indie-rock aesthetics, ensuring himself a steady commercial base among those who like their pop as pop, not as atonal brain-teasers, but still won't come within a mile's radius of MTV presence. It worked. What next?
Noble Beast is the first Andrew Bird album where I am exceedingly hard pressed to find even a remote trace of progress. (Apart from a couple lame moves, like the electronica elements and techno beats on 'Not A Robot' which do not agree with his style at all, I'm afraid). It's just another chunk of guitar-and-violin-driven pop, tied to another chunk of enigmatic, occasionally nerdy lyrics (he even makes a reference to «proto-Sanskrit Minoans» at one point, which may delight the initiated, but should probably turn off history and linguistics buffs who actually know the meaning of these words). It's all pleasant, and a few of the songs are emotionally wondralicious — but totally surprising in its total lack of surprises.
But if, for one moment, we admit that our expectations are skewed — that, perhaps, Andrew has simply found the kind of sound that gives him complete sexual self-satisfaction — then what remains is simply to listen to the album over and over again until it clicks like the rest. Then, eventually, 'Oh No' wins over as one of his delightfullest, most aethereal odes to spiritual liberation (provided this is how we have to interpret the lament about "calcium mines deep in our chest"), with one of his friendliest whistling patterns to boot. 'Fitz & Dizzyspells' is uplifting power pop that ranks up there with 'Heretics' (and also continues to display what I perceive as his serious interest in the Arcade Fire anthem style). And the start of 'The Privateers' is his most polished alloy of medieval balladry and post-modern sheen to date, upon which it builds up layer after layer of grandiosity and then finally explodes in a bunch of electronic noise shambles.
For those who like their Andrew all sky-like and pastoral, 'Souverian' will do the job nicely. No one knows who 'Souverian' is; Bird himself was caught mentioning something about this being a French word, but, unless he happened to fall upon a mistyped variant of souverain, or decided by himself that the word would look nicer if disguised as an Armenian family name, he probably did not know what he was talking about (no big surprise here). Regardless, it forms a nice near homophone with 'so very young', and that's all it took to build up a genteel, manneristic mini-suite that does a great job extracting you from the world of Miley Cyrus for about seven minutes.
But keep in mind that if, like me, you get acquainted with Bird in chronological order, you'd better be prepared for a tinge of boredom and tiredness. His obvious professionalism and mannered intelligence prevent, and, I think, will always prevent him from releasing a non-respectable record, yet there is only so much hyper-intellectual parallel-universe-building that one's mind will accept from the mind of another. And for Bird, it looks like his particular parallel universe has reached the end of its carefully planned construction — now all that remains is to understand how to spend the rest of the allocated budget. Repave the roads, perhaps?