Nature and Art, Music and Criticism: Andrew Bird, Noble Beast

By Daniel Garrett

Andrew Bird, Noble Beast
Produced by Andrew Bird
Recorded and Mixed by Mark Nevers
Mastered by Jeff Lipton
Fat Possum Records, 2009

The music of Andrew Bird, a singer and songwriter, has delicacy, detail, and depth: and it is not simply an expression of thought and emotion but an elaboration of perspective. Andrew Bird is an artist, one of significant mastery, one who seems able to reconcile sound and silence, wilderness and order, love and solitude. When we are very young, we think of adults as free, knowing, strong; and as we grow older and more aware we begin to understand how constrained and weak many adults are. For some of us, artists and thinkers become heroes, figures of agility and movement, of imagination, of knowledge and strength; although, it is true, many artists are free only in the realm of their own work: and they hold for us an image of the possible, if not the probable. Andrew Bird, who was born and bred in the Chicago area, liked a variety of music since he was a boy, including European classical music, blues, jazz, and music from other countries (Hungarian gypsy and south Indian music), hearing all music as connected. Andrew Bird, attracted to the violin when he was four, graduated from Northwestern University, where he focused on the violin, and he soon began producing music albums. His song collections include: Music of Hair, Thrills, Oh! The Grandeur, The Swimming Hour, Fingerlings, The Ballad of the Red Shoes, Weather Systems, Fingerlings 2, Sovay, The Mysterious Production of Eggs, Fingerlings 3, Armchair Apocrypha, Soldier On, and Live in Montreal. Bird, who owns a farm, has been able to make a decent living from his music since he was nineteen years old; and the gradual development of his career, from obscurity to fame, has been classic. (His fans have been known to discuss his lyrics and his socks.) Bird, for whom experimentation is a given, has said that he creates more out of happiness than pain; and, consequently, it is nice to conclude, in light of his productivity, that he is living a happy life. It is interesting, then, that his music has a mellow, male melancholy, with songs that have complex structures and words that sound great on the tongue.

Music is sound, sound given the attention of craft, sound infused with feeling and thought, dreams and guesses and suspicions, sound made to carry the wonder of the world. With Noble Beast, Andrew Bird has said that he wanted to make the music he heard in his head, sounds he was not hearing in the music world. The musicians who helped Andrew Bird make Noble Beast include Martin Dosh (percussion, keyboards, looping); Jeremy Ylvisaker (guitar, organ, shortwave); Mike Lewis (clarinet); David Lindvall (bass); Andreas Werliin (drums); and Emil Svanangen (flute). Of Bird’s Noble Beast, music critic Joan Anderman declared, “God knows Noble Beast is lovely: 14 slices of sublime chamber pop—ranging in scope from a 20-second trip (‘Ouo’) to a six-minute Latin meditation (‘Masterswarm’)—made of Bird’s conservatory-caliber violin, virtuosic whistle, picked guitar, and signature looping, the occasional flute, keyboard, and clarinet, and a smattering of delicate electronics” (Boston Globe, January 19, 2009).

Criticism is a translation of experience, observation, and judgment, a translation of sound into insight. Critics have reviewed Andrew Bird’s work and have drawn attention to the quality of mind present in Bird’s work, and his interest in biology and history. Bird himself said he first conceived Noble Beast as akin to a nook in a forest, full of strange life. Billboard’s Katie Hasty observed that “if anything distinguishes Noble Beast from its predecessors, it is its seriousness. From the super-simple ‘Tenuousness’ to the pensive instrumental intermissions ‘Ouo’ and ‘Unfolding Fans,’ there’s a constant spooky and dreamlike whir to all 14 songs” (January 31, 2009). In a thoughtful review that acknowledged that Bird’s appeal has been sometimes more intellectual than emotional, on the pages of the web review Drowned in Sound (March 12, 2009) James Skinner wrote, “Where Andrew Bird succeeds so fervently with Noble Beast is in endowing it a vital, quixotic sense of humanity.”

Of course, while Andrew Bird’s whistling may be the most idiosyncratic thing about his music, a whistling that is both natural and odd, it is Bird’s voice that is likely to be the most engaging and memorable: he has command of different tonal approaches. That voice, embedded in songs intelligently and richly constructed, in which an increase in volume actually matches the lyrics and serves dramatic purpose, is a voice quite hard to resist. There can be no doubt why some people think of Noble Beast as a masterwork. “Oh No” begins with violin and whistling and continues with lines about being “arm and arm with all the homeless sociopaths” and admonitions to “get out of here, past the atmosphere.” The song was inspired by a child’s cry—“oh no”—heard by Bird during an airplane flight; and it provides the album’s first but not last elevation. The composition “Masterswarm,” which seems to connect the world of wild nature and social life, could be a classical choir piece, though Bird’s voice becomes a croon in the second part of the song, which has a rhythm akin to light clapping, and rhymes such as “diction, eviction, conviction,” rhymes that both charm and distance. “Fitz and the Dizzyspells” has a layered texture and a fast, pleasing tempo. The structural changes in “Effigy” are like the changes that occur in the human mind and in society, and the lyrics reflect on aloneness and fake social conversation (there is a violin introduction with what might be keyboards, then ballad singing and guitar and harmony vocals; suggesting isolation and company). The central character in “Tenuousness” seems unusually smart and alienated, and the music has a somewhat country-western rhythm with the strings of formally composed music (contrast and complement). There are lovely melody lines in “Nomenclature.” (Bird has said that melody is pure, while words are suspect. How can a listener reject a musician who reminds one a little, by turns, of Mahler, David Bowie, Robyn Hitchcock, and Jeff Buckley—and finally reminds one of no one but Andrew Bird?) The brief interlude of “Ouo” is followed by something that sounds both middle eastern and electronic—“Not a Robot, But a Ghost,” apparently about the end of a relationship, then the short throbbing instrumental, “Unfolding Fans.” The singer’s voice in “Anonanimal” is murmuring, nearly chanting, and then happily up as Bird repeats, “I know this song, I know this one” and there are several shifts in the music (fast, then slow and somber; varied tempos and tones). “Natural Disaster” is guitar and voice, one ideal presentation of a singer-songwriter; and in “The Privateers,” the tone of Bird’s voice—honed, warm, precise—recalls to me that of an American singer and graphic artist I used to know, someone yet unknown to the world, and hearing the song makes me consider talent, hard work, and opportunity—what we misname fate. Andrew Bird’s voice can carry a song even when we are unsure of the words or their meaning, as in “Souverian” in which it emerges that he sings “so very young were we” and “still my lover will return to me” (with guitar feedback near the end). “On Ho” is merely epilogue, an instrumental short. Listening to Andrew Bird’s album Noble Beast again and again, I find my appreciation sustained.

There are artists whose work is accepted as the epitome of excellence in their disciplines, the fulfillment of their fields; and once that recognition is achieved it is, sometimes, forgotten that the quality of their work was achieved with ambition, intelligence, time, and sacrifice, with creativity, passion, and strangeness: it is forgotten that the quality of their work was built note by note, lyric by lyric, song by song, album by album. Andrew Bird’s most well-known works may be Armchair Apocrypha and Noble Beast; and they have a history. I, like others, think Noble Beast is wonderful. However, surprisingly, a PopMatters.com writer, Mehan Jayasuriya, thought Noble Beast Andrew Bird’s most uneven album: “Bird is a notoriously meticulous songwriter and composer (allegedly, he scrapped The Mysterious Production of Eggs twice before committing to tape a version that he liked), and on Noble Beast he makes an obvious attempt to confront those impulses. On the songs where this approach works, namely ‘Not a Robot, But a Ghost’ and ‘Anonanimal,’ the results are stunning—complex songs that sound organic, rather than fussed over. However, on the songs where it doesn’t quite work the results are mixed; songs meander in search of an ending, melodies float in the air but never quite come into focus. As it turns out, most of the songs that make up Noble Beast fall into the latter category, making it the most uneven album in Bird’s solo catalog by a wide margin” (January 19, 2009). Such a declaration, unfortunately, would be easier to dismiss if it did not occur within a review that seems to contain significant care for, and knowledge, of Bird’s oeuvre. I only recently (in 2007) was introduced to Andrew Bird via Armchair Apocrypha, a recording I admire and the recording that preceded Noble Beast, and of Noble Beast I am inclined to think, If this is not the best, I’ve got to hear the rest! I doubt that Bird is too concerned with any of our responses: he is probably thinking of new creations. One of the intriguing qualities of Andrew Bird’s work is what seems to be a core of serenity, beyond joy or sorrow, isolation or community; and I wonder if the quality of his attention—dispersed among his creativity and his responses to the beings and things of the larger world—is a key to that serenity: no single thing is his focus.


Daniel Garrett is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, AllAboutJazz.com, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, Film International, Hyphen, IdentityTheory.com, Muse-Apprentice-Guild.com, Offscreen.com, Option, PopMatters.com, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, WaxPoetics.com, and World Literature Today. He has written fiction, poetry, drama, journalism, and criticism. Daniel Garrett’s web log at Blogger.com, focused on culture and society, is called “City and Country, Boy and Man.” His e-mail address is D.Garrett.Writer@gmail.com

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