A long hike through the folds in Andrew Bird's brain is what you sign up for when you play one of his albums. He's been wandering that path since 2003's Weather Systems, when he retired his former band, the Bowl of Fire, and moved to Western Illinois to live with his thoughts on an old farm. On his new album,Noble Beast, Bird can sometimes seem too far inside his own head. And he also appears aware of it, addressing that solitude on "Effigy": "When one has spent too much time alone..." He doesn't answer with another lyric-- perhaps he doesn't have an answer. Instead, he lets you fill in the blank while he reels off a pretty, rustic
Noble Beast is, in many ways, a record that asks you to forget the way you currently approach the album. It didn't click for me on early listens. The sometimes drifting song structures, frequent tonal shifts, odd lyrics, and interludes presented a stuffed canvas full of interesting sounds that didn't seem to have a focal point, didn't seem to have a place where you were supposed to enter the composition. Eventually, however, everything fell into place. Marinating in an album in this way is old-fashioned in the overloaded peer-to-peer era, but it's a fitting approach from Bird, a guy who often wrestles with the implications of modern technology and communications.
The sound of the album is as important as the notes Bird plays, and this extends to the lyrics, where he's gradually gone from word-play to syllable-play, often choosing lines for their sounds and tonal quality more than for their meaning. Nevertheless, Bird's music is still emotionally powerful-- he gives uncommon weight to odd phrases, sometimes backing off pronouncing a word fully. His diction comes and goes similar to the way Thom Yorke's does. Some of the phrases don't mean anything; others jump out oddly, like the way he follows a free-association game on "Masterswarm" with the startlingly cogent, even harrowing line, "They took me to the hospital and they put me through a scan." Bird injects the music with similar contrasts, opening "Effigy" with a spooky bed of looping, processed violins before shifting into one of the album's most traditional-sounding moments, with finger-picked acoustic guitar playing a simple, straightforward melody.
Despite early listens, I quickly found myself returning to the record even as I corresponded about it with some nonplussed colleagues. And it revealed itself to be fantastically detailed, from the woodwinds that spice the electronic pulse of "Not a Robot, But a Ghost" to the bassline that comes out of nowhere at the finale of "The Privateers". More broadly, it takes you even further into the canyons of Bird's mind, and it does so with an organic, unhurried flow that's ultimately an improvement on 2007's Armchair Apochrypha, a record I felt was sometimes too fussy and mannered. Even the bonus disc that comes with the deluxe edition, Useless Creatures, has a captivating looseness that finally brings some of the high-wire energy of his unpredictable live shows into the studio.
Noble Beast is has its weak spots-- "Nomenclature" in particular takes the repurposing of language purely for its sound a step too far, not least of which because Bird chose a cumbersome, ugly word-- but one of the benefits of working so far in your own sphere is that your mistakes will always be interesting, and better than that, you get to learn from them. I have no idea what Bird will learn from making this record, but he seems to have taught himself plenty about what his music can be during his time alone-- and now he's reminding us about the value of patiently engaging with music as well.