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Sunday, May 6, 2012

Andrew Bird: Break It Yourself


1) Desperation Breeds...; 2) Polynation; 3) Danse Caribe; 4) Give It Away; 5) Eyeoneye; 6) Lazy Projector; 7) Near Death Experience Experience; 8) Behind The Barn; 9) Lusitania; 10) Orpheo Looks Back; 11) Sifters; 12) Fatal Shore; 13) Hole In The Ocean Floor; 14) Belles.

Well... this is another Andrew Bird album, make no mistake about it. In fact, it is so much an Andrew Bird album that I caught myself with a déjà vu feeling on just about every song, even if none of the melodies can be identified as direct carbon copies of past material (I think). Strange enough, though, this looked like a problem on Noble Beast, but not here. It does confirm my con­clusions, stated for that previous album: Andrew Bird is no longer interested in searching, having found exactly what he was loo­king for. But, on the other hand, any formula, no matter for how long you have been sticking to it, may always be perfected. And my own intuition, for reasons I am still trying to understand, whispers that Break It Yourself is a minor rebound upwards from the minor «sagging» of Noble Beast.

The album is padded. It runs for sixty minutes, and a significant chunk of them are donated to sheer atmospherics. To be honest, I think that ʽFatal Shoreʼ works rather well as a natural conclu­sion to the album, and that the lazy eight minutes of «chamber ambience» that constitute ʽHole In The Ocean Floorʼ, as well as the even more minimalistic chimes-and-crickets outro of ʽBellesʼ, are a useless waste of everything that can be wasted. Nor is the «bulk» of the album free from moments when Bird's subtle tension slips into subtle languidness — inavoidable, perhaps, when you place quiet introspective melancholia and soft, inobtrusive acoustic guitar and violin patterns at the heart of your sound.

But overall, Break It Yourself still does it right by focusing most heavily on Bird's vocals — the atmosphere is closer to «minimalistic» than it was on Noble Beast; the instrumental melodies are fairly simple and predictable; and the hooks are generally tighter, darker, and hit closer to the heart. The word «desperation» is already locked in the title of the first song; and while Bird is never «desperate» in the generic sense of the word, I wouldn't be surprised to ever find out that he was intentionally planning here to deliver the saddest album in his career. More than half of the songs are dirges — semi-obscure laments with lyrics so convolu­ted that they could be relatable to lost love or the downfall of society with equal success. More importantly, more than half of the dirges click like a good dirge is supposed to.

It is hard to pick out individual examples, but ʽLusitaniaʼ is one of the more immediate heart-tug­gers, a duet with singer-songwriter St. Vincent, a.k.a. Annie Clark, for which Andrew has saved up his best crooning intonations and a simple, but true conclusion — "we don't study this war no more", with both singers joining in on "go ahead, say something dumb boy, there's no shame". Not everyone will want to interpret Break It Yourself as a cry for humanity, but ʽLusitaniaʼ is one of the more explicit numbers, and these moments of explicitness color the whole record.

Come to think of it, while few of the songs reach the levels of complexity that Bird occasionally used to demonstrate, and practically none of them show you something you have not already seen before, they all manage to get by just on the strength of certain isolated lines or phrases. ʽLazy Projectorʼ moves slow and shuffly, and is really all about the subtly condescending "tell me how long till the paint starts to peel". ʽDanse Carribeʼ is all about "here we go mistaking clouds for mountains". ʽEyeoneyeʼ is all about how "no one can break your heart, so you break it yourself". ʽNear Death Experience Experienceʼ is totally about how "we'll dance like cancer survivors, like we're grateful simply to be alive". And so on. Through sheer groping around, he finds all these little bits and turns them into steady bolts that fasten the whole construction.

This, in turn, gives the whole album a certain epic, ultra-serious feel; Break It Yourself is neither lightweight/carnivalesque, nor surrealistic/psychedelic, as most of Bird's earlier albums are. Once you decipher the man's lyrics using whatever personal key you may find on your own, the album may not turn out to be telling us lots of things that we do not already know. But I do get the feel­ing that, having already established himself as an unsurpassed master of a certain musical form, Bird is now finally trying to inject that form with substance, or, at least, a little bit of philosophi­cal realism that goes along very nicely with his particular brand of music.

For those who will get their first taste of Bird with Break It Yourself, the record may well be a revelation. For those who have already thoroughly explored his career and found it worthy with­out developing a fanatical attitude, it may require a few additional listens — by the end of which you will probably get the feeling that these days, Andrew Bird is treating himself with an extra dose of self-admiration compared to the way it used to be. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing: to me, it made Break It Yourself a more interesting and challenging experience than Noble Beast, with a guaranteed thumbs up. On the other hand, this may also breed trouble for the future. We'll just have to wait and see.

Check "Break It Yourself" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Break It Yourself" (MP3) on Amazon

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