ANDREW BIRD: ARE YOU SERIOUS (2016)
1) Capsized; 2) Roma Fade; 3) Truth Lies Low; 4) Puma; 5) Chemical Switches; 6) Left Handed Kisses; 7) Are You Serious; 8) Saints Preservus; 9) The New Saint Jude; 10) Valleys Of The Young; 11) Bellevue; 12*) Shoulder Mountain; 13*) Pulaski.
Bird likes to be prolific in so many different ways that the border between «basic» albums and «special» (live, ambient, cover, etc.) projects in his career tends to become blurred; but, the way I see it, Are You Serious is really his first «basic» album in about four years, since at least Break It Yourself — comprised of bona fide art-pop songs and nothing else. It appears that, after several years of fiddling about, the idea here was to produce something normal and accessible, reflecting his new family life and values, and, indeed, the songs are generally less cryptic lyrically and less provocative musically than you'd typically expect from the man.
And that is perfectly all right with me, except the record does little to shatter my belief that Andrew is about a decade past his creative peak already (which is not a crime — not even the Beatles had themselves the luxury of ten uninterrupted years of creative growth); then again, an album that pursues intimately personal goals need not necessarily strive for originality as well, and this one is just a bunch of family-oriented songs from the most light-footed loner in modern pop music, and should be taken as such, and enjoyed like a familiar, predictable, but still delicious gourmet dinner.
Most of the songs combine sincerity with catchiness and — how could we make without that? — a lyrical or musical allegory or two. The very first song, ʽCapsizedʼ, will reassure us that, happily settled family man or not, this is still the same old neurotic Andrew Bird, and he still needs somebody by his side when he has to pull it together, and there's just no telling how much worse things get when the somebody in question goes missing: "another break up, this ship is capsized", and we get archaic references to Jesus making our dying bed. The accompanying music is like a cross between James Brown and Tom Waits, borrowing the funkiness of the former and the hoarse, distorted approach to instrumentation of the latter, with broken guitar riffs that could have come from Marc Ribot (actually, they come from Blake Mills) — but unlike either of them, Andrew never loses his cool, so that most of the drama is implicit, reflected in the tense, suspenseful atmosphere but never breaking through to the surface.
It's all about paranoia, really — a set of songs written by somebody who allegedly feels confused and insecure around other people, and then finally finds himself in that embarrassing position when someone (even someone loved) is always around. "And if she sees you, it changes you / Rearranges your molecules", he sings on ʽRoma Fadeʼ to an oddly danceable and bizarrely morose beat, continuing and appropriating the old tradition of «love's a wonderfully dangerous and dangerously wonderful thing». It gets worse on ʽPumaʼ: "She was radioactive for seven days / How I wanted to be holding her anyways / But the doctors, they told me to stay away / Due to flying neutrinos and the gamma rays" — no, this is not misogyny, this is more like an inverted case of autophobia, with Bird's jerky, hopping staccato violin rhythms reflecting his agitated state of mind and the seeming impossibility of making the right choice.
Musically, the songs seem to draw upon all sorts of local pop traditions, from Mexican to Caribbean to French to Celtic to good old 1970s R&B, but all the influences are softly converted to «Andrew Bird music», based on violins and jazzy guitars, and essentially it feels like the man has no preferences whatsoever — as long as the whole thing does not come close to stereotypical «rock» or «pop», and as long as he's allowed to keep that guitar / violin setup, anything goes at any time. One of the simpler, folksier songs is a duet with Fiona Apple (ʽLeft Handed Kissesʼ), who, I guess, could in certain respects be viewed as the female Andrew Bird, so the collaboration should come across as natural — yes and no, because with these two certified loners, they have no chemistry whatsoever, and even when they're singing at the same time, they're pretty much doing it without noticing that the other guy is in the same room, so... (actually, most of the time he's not even looking at her in the accompanying video, so even visually it feels as if they're talking to each other and to the wall simultaneously). It's kinda cute, even if there's a bit of pretentious artificialness to the performance.
In any case, the biggest deal here is that it's easier to relate to a record like this than it is to relate to most of Andrew's usual dialogs with his inner demons, where you really have to be one of the demons in question to «get» everything that is going on. This, and the fact that repeated listens will have the melodies to at least ʽCapsizedʼ, the title track, and ʽPumaʼ stuck in your head for days, is what makes the record stand out a good bit from the rest of Andrew's over-inflated latter day catalog, even if it does not exactly promise a brighter future. Thumbs up, and a special recommendation for highly sensitive boys with lotsa girl troubles, just to let you know that you're not alone, and maybe you should pick up some violin lessons.