Whistling wonder's latest requires more work than usual
Andrew Bird has always been a bit of a showoff. For good reason,
though—he’s an incredible violinist and composer, he knows big words
like apocrypha, and anyone who can make a human whistle sound like the
wind, a voice, a theremin and a saw, might as well prove it.
Here, Bird’s arrangements are uncharacteristically subtle. Trademark orchestral swells take the backburner to confident vocals, easy melodies, guitar plucking and—yes—freakishly good whistling. Subtle doesn’t always mean boring, though. The catchy chorus of “Fitz and the Dizzyspells” could turn doing the dishes, driving to work or sitting on the couch into exciting and triumphant experiences, and “Effigy” is perfectly understated, from the somber melody and intricate guitar picking to the cute rhyme of “affable” and “laughable.”
Still, there are a few awkward moments—the flamenco guitars feel tacked-on sometimes, and Bird’s urgent, repetitive wail on the aptly titled “Not A Robot, But A Ghost” too closely recalls Thom Yorke. For someone who practically invented his own genre, Bird seems to forget himself here. Same goes for “Nomenclature,” on which he sounds like a dead-ringer for Rufus Wainwright. He successfully pulls off the cabaret sound, and the song is charming, but it offers nothing new. And the record starts to run together toward the end, beginning with minute-long violin meander “Unfolding Fans.”
Bird’s cutback in musical drama inadvertently begs for a sharper focus on individual parts, including the lyrics, their grandiosity making up for the music’s lack thereof—and then some. But listen too hard, and his words turn into flashing lights.
You might start by looking up the word radiolarian. The dictionary says it’s a protozoan. So you look up protozoan and learn that it’s a eukaryote. Before you know it you’re looking up organelle and cytoplasm and eventually end up with the word cell—you’re pretty sure that radiolarian isn’t a fancy way of saying cell, but you’re kind of pissed off that a lyric sent you on such a goose chase, plus, now you feel stupid and don’t even care what the word means anymore. And if it were just that one trip-up, it’d be no big deal. But there’s more where it came from—to name quite a few: aubergine (French for “eggplant”); proto-Sanskrit (the hypothetical ancestor of the Indo-European language); Cypriot (inhabitant of Cyprus); Uralic (a family of languages to which Hungarian, Finnish and Estonian belong, comprising Finno-Ugric and Samoyed as subfamilies); troglobite (cave-dwelling creature); plecostomus (type of Central and South American fish); anthurium (a kind of plant); pleurisy (inflammation of the pleura, which is a membrane in mammal lungs); valerian (another plant); and dermestid (something about beetles).
The lyrical confusion doesn’t end there. Some words aren’t even definable (Hobis-hot?), and chinless men are scratching their beards, and someone’s “wearing nothing but a onesie and a veil,” and eggplants are dreaming, and people are having “fake conversations on nonexistent telephones.” It’s not merely challenging—it’s a real gluteal throe (pain in the ass).
There’s nothing wrong with having to refer to the dictionary every once in a while, but Bird’s constant textbookish references make it almost impossible to connect with whatever sentiments lie beneath his gratuitous wordplay, and it’s hard to know what any one song is really about. There’s a moment of sympathy for the protagonist in the next-to-last song, because parsnips are scalding his lungs and thistles are burning his feet and his lover won’t return, and honestly, who would wish that sort of physical and emotional pain on anyone? But the feeling quickly passes because, I mean, really—can a parsnip scald someone’s lungs?
None of this changes the fact that Bird’s music is pretty. Individual words and lines are hard to grasp, yes—but they’re probably not meant to be grasped. This multi-instrumentalist and music scholar seems more interested in the sounds of words than the messages they convey (as evidenced best in “Tenuousness”: “Tenuousness less seven comes to three / Them you us plus eleven / Comes just shy of infinity”). Only Bird knows what on earth that means—but we can all agree that it sure sounds nice. This isn’t a confessional record, and Bird isn’t trying to make it onto any wedding playlists or breakup mixes (but just for fun, if you’re making one, let me recommend “Anonanimal” and “Oh No,” respectively). Poetry has always been another tool in his box, but here more than ever, it seems that the lyrics serve as an instrument, not to be separated from the rest of the music, and helping to create a seamless but showy overall sound.