Andrew Bird’s last album, Break It Yourself, was a charming little thing; the “it” refers to a metaphorical heart. His latest work, Hands of Glory, serves as a companion album, though “companion” may not be the most appropriate word.

Andrew Bird

Hands of Glory
Mom & Pop

Hands of Glory is more of an alter ego. Even its name suggests something darker — a “hand of glory,” for those of you not familiar with old European beliefs, is the pickled hand of a hanged man. The album still has its share of jaunty, fast-stringed ditties, but there’s a haunting quality to it unfound in Break It Yourself.

The recording process for Hands of Glory involved a group of musicians in both a barn and a church, surrounding a single microphone with their acoustic instruments. These two locations are actually quite fitting given the nature of the album. It shifts from melancholic coldness to the warmth and vigor of a barn dance, then back to the hollow, reverberating qualities of uniform pews and arching marble ceilings. Opener “Three White Horses,” for instance, is clean and cryptic, the instrumentation smoothly weaving in and out of focus. The song is effortlessly chilling, an understated premonition of death.

“When That Helicopter Comes” has a similarly slick feeling. It’s a sorrowful song featuring Bird’s violin piercing through the refrain with a delicate cry, airy oohs hovering in the background. But the song always bounces back to a guitar thumping along, Bird’s vocals confident and unwavering.

It’s after “When That Helicopter Comes” that the scene begins to shift, revealing a hay-filled room with a lanky Bird and his troupe of flanneled musicians. “Spirograph” is a pleasant track that seems destined for play on a pickup-truck radio somewhere in Montana. And Bird seems to have fully immersed himself in the hay around the track “Railroad Bill.”

“Railroad Bill” is a song teeming with country quaintness. It revolves around this “Bill” character, who, according to Bird, is a “mighty mean man.” The end of the track includes a quintessential hillbilly yell — a throaty, disconcerting “Waaaooooo!” — and you have to wonder if Bird’s just being ironic. Alas, he’s probably not.

But let’s get one thing straight — Bird is an extremely talented musician, regardless of whether you’re into folk songs, country tunes, ominous death-related elegies or whatever he’s going for on Hands of Glory. “Something Biblical” features a long, warm violin solo — thick and rich as maple syrup sliding down the bark. “Orpheo” is a remarkably serene track that features the soft harmonics of Bird’s violin — careful and flawless. The song references “Orpheo Looks Back” from Bird’s last album, but while that track is snappy, chirpy and whistle-filled, “Orpheo” is an auditory barbiturate.

While Bird does a wonderful job in assuming the rugged-folksinger-in-a-barn persona on Hands of Glory, the album heartbreakingly lacks his signature whistling. This disappointment is made up for, however, with the last track “Beyond the Valley of the Three White Horses,” by far the most impressive component of Hands of Glory.

“Horses” nine minutes stretches to encompass the span of a day. The song starts with early-morning chirping, a few anxious crickets and pizzicato — playful and lighthearted and all over the place — while lower strings offer a warm blanket over the plucking.

Ghostly vocals harmonize the line “three white horses” repetitively, and the strings begin to take on a heavy quality that transitions the song into darkness. “Beyond the Valley” becomes beautifully eerie, drifting off into a void of warbling low notes as the “three white horses” refrain begins to wander back in. The song is precise and powerful, evoking some of Bird’s older work, like Armchair Apocrypha. But most importantly, it’s a welcome relief from the “Railroad Bill” antics Bird pulls earlier in the album.

Bird’s biggest fault with Hands of Glory is the depth with which it descends into the corny realm of country, but even then he remains lovably dorky. He still manages to meditate upon a number of particularly gloomy topics, and his talent courses strong throughout the album. Hands of Glory is peculiar in this sense. You might cry, but you also might do a barn dance.

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