Fans of Andrew Bird who pride themselves on their ability to understand the violinist’s enigmatic musings may want to find a new hobby. Bird’s latest LP Break It Yourself is pretty easy listening — straightforward and pleasant. While the peculiar lyrics and shifting melodies of Bird’s older albums prodded his listeners to pick the mind of the complex artist, his newest work is less brain, more barebones.

Andrew Bird

Break It Yourself
Mom + Pop

In a way, Bird caved in with Break It Yourself. In describing his motivation for the album to online magazine The Quietus, he explained how he surrendered to the lures of frankness. “Something happened when I was writing this record,” Bird said. “I got a little tired of the poetics in a sense. And I wanted to just make a more direct record.” While this approach allows for a slightly more relatable and easygoing record, it leaves listeners longing for the exotic excursions of past albums such as Andrew Bird & the Mysterious Production of Eggs and Noble Beast.

Break It Yourself starts off deceptively eerie with “Desperation Breeds…” (even the song title is a cliffhanger). It begins with unhurried plucking — a classic in any given Bird album — and unintelligible, spacey murmurs in the background. But the track quickly clears the fog, falling into a pulse that is calm but punctual, eventually evolving into a more hopeful sound. The song seems reassuring in tone, and as the introduction to the album, it appears that listeners can expect the capricious work of Bird they’re used to.

The subsequent track is “Polynation,” a wordless 45-second buffer for future disappointment. It’s simultaneously haunting and cheery, ending with a baby’s babbles. The start of the album is a bit of a red herring, serving as a stark contrast for much of the rest of Break It Yourself. Though some tracks such as “Give It Away” and “Sifters” begin with impressive pizzicato that seems to hold promise for the rest of the song, they end up falling into a rut of tired choruses.

When Bird is left to solely instrumental experimentation, the sound is precise and expertly crafted. There is no denying his extraordinary talent with the violin and beyond, so when he begins cozying up to the simple comforts of the folk genre, he seems strangely laidback. Listeners are accustomed to Bird’s ability to make his one-man symphonies seem effortless, but if his sound becomes too casual, you might find yourself reaching for a pillow and craving the dreamlike otherworldliness of Bird’s past work. When even the angelic vocals of St. Vincent (Annie Clark) in “Lusitania” fail to inspire, it’s an indication that the music is getting a little too down-to-earth.

But reality need not be dull. In “Near Death Experience Experience,” Bird sings that “we’ll dance like cancer survivors.” For a track that talks about something so terrifyingly real, the artist maintains an assuredness and jazz that affirms fearlessness against death. More importantly, it has an energy that makes listeners want to dance, regardless of medical status. “Eyeoneye” is another widely relevant track as Bird discusses standard issues like broken hearts. He doesn’t attempt to add metaphors to the point of incomprehensibility — he wants listeners to understand and relate to him. The song avoids cliché with simple but charming guitar melodies and, of course, Bird’s signature whistling.

Unfortunately, the majority of Break It Yourself feels downsized, as if Bird didn’t feel like putting in the effort of crafting the poetry his fans have come to expect. There’s a rational, content sound to the album that makes for good background music but ultimately dissatisfies if you’re looking for the ethereal creations Bird is capable of. For instance, “Anonaminal,” a five-minute track from Bird’s last album, constantly changed shape, resulting in a wonderfully bizarre creature. At one point in the song, Bird completely abandons the melody, pausing to sing, “Hold on a second, don’t tell me this one you know, I know this one, I know this song.” The Bird of long ago might seem indignant at the idea that a listener would fully figure out his music. But with Break It Yourself, most songs are comfortable and predictable. Bird needs to spread those wings.

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