Andrew Bird’s latest album, HARK!, presents the perfect transition album between autumn and the holiday season. November always feels like a vaguely awkward month; Thanksgiving is but a brief road-stop to bigger and better things. HARK! is a bright, warm and playful re-imagining of several classic tunes, mixed with Bird’s signature dark-bellied folk and invigorating instrumentation. Put simply, just as Tim Burton’s “Nightmare Before Christmas” manages to be the perfect Halloween and Christmas film, Bird’s HARK! makes out to be both the perfect fall album and a great holiday wind-up.
Transition is the core storyline of Bird’s album. The first three tracks, “Andalucia,” “Alabaster” and “Greenwine” are classic Bird: slightly ominous with indulgent violin picking and beautiful yet somber lyrics make for the stereotypical (but highly enjoyable) fall soundtrack. “Andalucia” is a soft, gentle opening. A stripped down cover of a John Cale song from his 1973 album Paris 1919 (Cale was a founding member of the Velvet Underground), Bird embraces the beats of silence for an easy-going tune. Where Bird’s rendition oozes autumn melancholy, Cale’s original is reminiscent of summer sunshine. “Greenwine” is morbid and dark, narrating a hinted breakup on Christmas Day: “But it will never be enough / To save you from the bottom of your glass.”
Then, Bird begins to switch gears with the somber love song, “Christmas in April.” Breaking the musical fourth wall, Bird acknowledges “And I’m writing this song about Christmas in April this year / So I’m not sure what to think about that.” From here, HARK! unabashedly embraces the holiday theme, slowly evolving into a brighter album. “Christmas in April,” with Bird’s humorous self-awareness, hits with the same irony as finding Christmas decor in Walmart on Nov. 1 (right next to the discount Halloween candy!).
Holiday fever hits a high point with an instrumental rendition of “Oh Holy Night.” A high, reedy whistle carries the familiar tune, rather than Bird’s signature violin or vocals. The result? An eerie take on a solemn hymn, as if performed by a ghostly choir. However, Bird manages to retain the underlying warmth of “O Holy Night” by leaning heavily into the natural beauty of the instruments; experimentation and individuality doesn’t translate to a sacrifice of the original hymn’s integrity. Rather, in the spirit of transition, Bird’s take is like Christmas packaged in Halloween themed gift-wrapping.
While “Oh Holy Night” certainly embraces the “fall-mystique,” HARK! is not by any means an attempt to market a Halloween-Christmas album. The comparison of Bird’s trademark solemnity to the spooky holiday lends itself more to the correlation of the album’s release on the eve of Halloween. HARK! truly functions as a dedicated “fall-indie” album mixed with a heavy dose of Christmas spirit.
Notably, HARK! features a cover of folk-country artist John Prine’s “Souvenirs.” An emotional song about lost memories, hard-earned through experience but which slip away over the years: “Can’t forget the way they rob me, yeah / Of my childhood souvenirs.” In the wake of John Prine’s passing this past April, Bird’s cover is especially poignant. Appropriately, the songs of Prine have become treasured “souvenirs” in the lives of his fans far and wide. Bird’s rendition is more electric than Prine’s original, leaning into the whine of violin strings, it’s a song that feels like a heartfelt response to Prine’s introspective performances.
HARK! has all the moving parts to soundtrack a heartfelt holiday film. Moody fall tracks for the car-ride montage? Check. Emotional but fresh covers of well-loved classics to score brownie points? Check. Instrumental beats for the backdrop of character development and artistically shot snowfall? Check. Christmas music? Check. “Auld Lang Syne” for the final New Year’s resolution scene where generic small-town boy and eccentric-but-hard-working girl reunite? Check and double check and triple check.
Listen to Andrew Bird’s HARK!. It’s the perfect album to get you “in the mood” for the holiday season, as well as a great compliment to any dramatic self-introspection as the weather cools.
Daily Arts Writer Madeleine Virginia Gannon can be reached at email@example.com.