One of depression’s more insidious and debilitating symptoms is a loss of faith in one’s ability to communicate. It’s a two-headed monster, depression, producing in those who suffer both a fundamental sense of inadequacy and shame in themselves and an equally fundamental sense of the profanity of everything around them. Very quickly the imprisoned realizes that these feelings are just feelings, and their appearance as empirically and rationally realized truths becomes just as disgusting as the feelings themselves. The result is an acute distrust of and reliance on one’s own perception as epistemological square one — acknowledged by many healthy minds, but obsessed over by the depressed person, who quickly comes to believe that these impure thoughts neither can nor should be actualized into their already impure surroundings as language. They are too complex and too basic, too personal and too universal, too obvious and too obscure to be communicated in one’s own words.
Devotees of Andrew Bird may be disappointed to learn that the new Andrew Bird album is not an Andrew Bird album at all, but a collection of Andrew Bird covers of songs originally by The Handsome Family, a band that, though similar in many ways to Andrew Bird, is not Andrew Bird. (They may also be saddened to learn that Bird whistles but one verse plus one bar.)
I’m basically just here to advise said devotees that they shouldn’t dwell on said disappointment, as telling other people’s stories is important, even therapeutic for the imaginary subject of Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of…, a depiction of a transient world filled with cruel ironies and strange hungers. Here you’ll find breadcrumb-sized mortals mocked by the grossly permanent cathedral they built. There, a crowd throwing bricks at a lunaphiliac milkman. Poodles with delusions of grandeur. A human-shaped freak in a world that doesn’t fit, washed in a dopamine-free beige, using pathetically vague words to cover up rather than express its emotional state.
The task of judging a cover album poses an obvious difficulty: What elements are actually the work of the artist being judged? The genre and the moods he evokes render this question moot. Obviously The Handsome Family deserves the credit for writing the poetry, which really is quite lovely, but here, as with most folk music, we must consider the words qua Bird’s selection and interpretation. But this isn’t the most interesting way in which this album is his. Bird is a gifted and prolific lyricist in his own right, having spent a long career relying on the ability of his own words to touch his audience; his decision to use others’ words should be taken as integral to what they convey.
Doesn’t this decidedly self-unreliant method of individual expression bring us back to the heart of folk music by a different path? There’s a temptation to locate the authenticity of folk music in its apparent lack of mediation, its capacity to be filled so ponderously up with an individual’s experiences that it can begin to resemble some vision of life at its most inscrutable. But Things Are Really Great Here (to the same extent as the fogies who play weeknights at the pub down the street, I guess) finds its value in story(re-)telling and communal authorship, both crucial to the solace offered by the most affecting folk music. It’s why so much folk music with ostensibly grave subject matter can manage to sound downright goofy; others have been there and found, or at least grasped for, the words to express it back in a way worth listening to.
Bird’s simultaneous engagement with the words and distance from the material free his delivery to keep the album feeling lighter than I’ve implied. He is, however personal and referential his material, a purveyor of sweets after all, and his crooning puts a brighter, braver face on the album than his cover Bigfoot can manage. On “Tin Foiled,” originally a stately and dour waltz in Handsome hands, a paranoiac’s chorus (“What is moving will be still/ What is gathered will disperse/ What’s been built up will collapse/ All your dreams fulfilled”) is transformed into a gleeful strummed-violin knee-tapper. The tone remains optimistic in a small but important way, a sort of gallows humor stretched over a lifespan, when he’s drinking the day away and wishing he’d just get cancer already. That particularly woeful verse is immediately preceded by that one aforementioned whistle-verse. It’s about as light as a canary realizing it at least has a cagemate.