Although he’s written appealing, tasteful music for quite some time, only recently has Andrew Bird attracted the attention of the striving-for-relevance adult contemporary crowd. I was perusing the shelves at a Barnes and Noble a few months ago and heard 2006’s Armchair Apocrypha in its entirety. On at least two occasions, I’ve heard “Scythian Empire” playing at Starbucks. The singer and multi-instrumentalist’s music is hardly simple, but it is most often superficially placid. His latest effort, Noble Beast, is no exception. From the bucolic photograph adorning the cover to his groomed, incredibly appealing voice, Andrew Bird’s music is pleasant and ostensibly innocuous.
Bird’s ingenious wordplay here rivals even that of verbose contemporaries Will Sheff, Dan Bejar, and Colin Meloy. With only casual listening, the man’s convoluted lines can seem nonsensical. He muses about microscopic organisms, ancient civilizations, and philosophy, but manages to make each lofty topic seem personal and even relatable. Beneath the clever alliteration and scientific jargon of “Masterswarm,” we have a song about the concerns and wonder of growing up. However dense these labyrinthine lines are (from “Tenuous” -- “Tenuous at best was all he had to say when pressed about the rest of it -- the world that is/ from proto-Sanskrit Minoans to porto-centric Lisboans Greek Cypriots and harbor sorts who hang around in ports a lot, uh-huh”), the singer delivers them effortlessly. It doesn’t even appear that Bird is flaunting his diction and dexterous articulators; the quick salvos sound natural and charming.
Although some songs (“Nomenclature,” “Natural Disaster”) are what you might expect, Noble Beast contains among Bird’s most adventurous sonic excursions. His upper-register baritone, virtuosic whistling, and violin abilities have all grown incrementally stronger since The Swimming Hour (or, dare I bring up his work with the Squirrel Nut Zippers). He filters several styles of Latin music through his own quirky folk and pop proclivities and garners great results through the process. In “Masterswarm,” he leads the band from stately chamber pop to slinky samba, then integrates the two styles fluidly until the end of the track. “Effigy” begins with a beautifully wistful flamenco guitar melody and gorgeous female vocal harmonies, dissolves into a back-porch folk number replete with thick violin double stops, then returns to the Mediterranean sketch intimated earlier. Although a good portion of the album feels restrained and subdued, the perfectly positioned “Not a Robot, but a Ghost” and “Anonanimal” inject much-needed vivacity. Martin Dosh’s busy percussion is indispensable here and brings a bit of the live energy the two are known for.
Admittedly, Noble Beast is a bit too long, a bit too languorous for it to exceed the precedent that Bird has established for himself through his past work. Although it’s undoubtedly consistent and enjoyable, these are the kind of adjectives that restrain this established songwriter from truly challenging or surprising his audience. And one can't help but wish for an even stronger approximation of his energetic and unpredictable live shows. Still, his lyrical and musical prowess is miles beyond that of the coffee-shop competition, and that makes Noble Beast a welcome addition to his discography.
1. Oh No
3. Fitz and the Dizzyspells
8. Not a Robot, But a Ghost
9. Unfolding Fans
11. Natural Disaster
12. The Privateers
14. On Ho