Initially, Andrew Bird’s latest album, My Finest Work, felt lackluster. Granted, when it comes to the musical stylings of Andrew Bird, “easy listening” isn’t his forte. I don’t mean “easy listening” as in chill relaxation, but rather as low-brain-energy music. The type of music you play when you trudge home world-weary at the end of the week; the music you listen to when you want to turn your brain off. At first listen, I made the mistake of sitting down to a musical meal with Andrew Bird in the midst of a week’s whirlwind. Unsurprisingly, my brain balked at Bird’s demand for undivided focus and attention; multilayered lyrics and symbolism were drowned in my mind’s futile search for a catchy, jaunty tune.
Again, that’s not to say Andrew Bird’s music is not catchy, or that it isn’t suited for a lazy, sunny day. It is all those things, but also much, much more. And that “more” is where the true power of the album arises.
With his trademark orchestration of heavy bass and light-footed violin, Bird’s masterful songwriting is center-stage. The many layers of his songs are hidden within unique lyrics and non-traditional song structure.
Songs like “Sisyphus” recall haunting echoes of antiquity, harkening back to the ancient Greek myth of Sisyphus, a sly trickster who cheated death twice. As eternal punishment Sisyphus was charged with carrying a boulder up a hill, never to succeed in this maddening task. The myth was meant to warn others from folly of trying to cheat the natural order. However, in his song Andrew Bird seems to speak from the mind of Sisyphus — the condemned — calling to “Let it roll, let it crash down.” In a sense, the song speaks to the futility of living a life within borders and expectations, of taking control of your own fate.
Later in the album, “Don the Struggle” provides a stylistic breath of fresh air. The song starts slow, to a steady, weary march. Bird sings “Let’s settle down / We’re all just stumbling down,” echoing a sense of bone-deep exhaustion — but instead of physical weariness, the implication points again to the burden of greater expectations. Later the song breaks out into a sudden burst of vibrancy. The tempo drastically increases, like a car speeding up. Then someone slams on the breaks, and the energy dive-bombs back into the somber march. In the energetic haze, Bird sings “But dissonance is energy while consonance reminds you of poverty” — another critique of the suffocation of the cookie-cutter lifestyle.
The final track, “Bellevue Bridge Club,” is comfortable, slow and eerie. What seems at first to be a somewhat sweet song quickly becomes a little … questionable when one tunes into the lyrics. Andrew Bird crafts a strange, twisted love song, singing “I will hold you hostage … You know there’s no you without me.” It’s almost reminiscent of Stockholm syndrome. However, the line, “And I will hold you hostage/ Make you part of my conspiracy,” hints at something deeper: Following the theme of the rest of the album of breaking through limitations, this last song symbolizes the perspective of the majority: Those who form the rules want everyone else to fall in line. But, in fact, rather than an encouragement of the herd-mentality, Andrew Bird calls attention to it in order to orchestrate a break to freedom from this well-beaten, suffocating path.
Ultimately, Andrew Bird is not the artist of the inattentive or indifferent. As a songwriter, he demands total and devoted attention. Bird makes every word count and forces the audience to pay attention to even the smallest details of his songs in order to capture the entirety of his multi leveled creations. Andrew Bird and his latest album is a prime example of how music can be an active, rather than passive, experience for artist and listener.