A decade after the release of Andrew Bird’s first album Music of Hair comes his most focused record to date, Armchair Apocrypha. Bird has come a long way, reigning in his haphazard musical whims and unconventional ethnic fiddle music, and channeling it into a professional and distinct sound.
The album opens with a lyrical depiction of post-Sept. 11 airplane phobia in “Fiery Crash”: “Turnstiles on mezzanine / Jet ways and Dramamine fiends / And x-ray machines / You were hurling through space / G-forces twisting your face / Breeding superstition / A fatal premonition / You know you got to envision the fiery crash.” Bird covers the general anxiety of the subject with an uplifting beat, creating the same serenity and anticipation one feels when sitting window side, gazing at the billowing clouds.
Armchair Apocrypha oscillates between poppy and morose, song to song and from lyrics to melody. As always, Bird’s work is multi-layered – delicate strings lie under snappy guitar plucking and glockenspiel.
The fourth track, “Dark Matter,” contains most of the same lyrics as “Sweetbreads,” although the songs have vastly different melodies. Bird poses existential questions like “Do you wonder where the self resides? / Is it in your head or between your sides? / And who will be the one who will decide its true location?” By listening to the song it’s evident that the meaning of “Sweetbreads,” which deals with issues of eating the vital organs of animals, has taken on new significance in the context of “Dark Matter.”
Toward the end of the album the tone and tempo both drop to a slower pace. “Cataracts” comes after a brief violin instrumental that captures the tone of a solo concert in a grand concert hall. Just at the song’s climax, Bird begins an ingenious whistling solo before the song dwindles away with the words “Light will fill our eyes like cats / Cataracts . “
“Spare-Ohs,” a ballad about mortality and the dying beauty of animals, brings the album to a seemingly somber close, but it’s quickly followed by the pleasant “Yawny at the Apocalpyse.” Bird can’t seem to stop himself from reminding the listener of his namesake, mixing in the calls of morning songbirds among masterful violin.
Tenth in a long line of praise-worthy albums, Armchair Apocrypha has a lengthy tradition to uphold. And it succeeds masterfully. Songs from The Mysterious Production of Eggs, like “Fake Palindromes” and “Measuring Cups,” may not have been topped, but they have nearly met their match with the new material.
Fair comparisons may be found between Bird’s smooth vocals and Rufus Wainwright, but the similarities end there. Stylistically, nothing quite matches Bird’s work. He continues to make a career of mashing up his own tradition of unconventional violin and professional whistling skills with introspective and witty lyrics. In the case of Armchair, the end result is a very personal statement of Bird’s Hungarian gypsy-meets-pop brand of art.
Four Stars out of Five