Andrew Bird fans are not exactly the kind of listeners who demand the conventional. By the time you've committed to your second show by this violin-playing, whistling oddball, you already know a bit more, well, attention is going to be demanded of you than your average indie rock band might ask; that things are going to move a bit more languorously, eccentrically, curiously than they usually do with the typical off-the-shelf indie artist. Indeed, that's probably just what you like about the guy. Andrew Bird likes to meander around an idea, trance-like, waiting to see what little syncopated lines will bubble up — what weirdo verbal turns of phrase will tumble out. Ever since Bird first discovered his voice on his breakthrough effort Weather Systems, he's been leading listeners on a tour of his gorgeously verdant musical brain, like some kooky indie rock Willy Wonka (the Gene Wilder version, of course), showing us the interior of his confectionery, where giant chocolate mushrooms line the path but little hints of menace lurk around every corner too.
Break It Yourself, Bird's seventh studio full-length (not counting his records credited to "Andrew Bird's Bowl Of Fire," early efforts that found Bird recovering from his near fatal brush with swing music), serves up generous helpings of the woozy, increasingly luxurious music he's been releasing for the better part of a decade, but this time with a bit extra sonic elbow room to the compositions. The songs unspool at an even less radio-conscious pace, with episodic sections and meandering codas, unexpected digressions and changes of tempo, and above all, an almost total disregard for hooks. The tone frequently winds down to a meditative crawl that might test the patience of Bird's less hardcore fans; listeners looking for another "Fitz And The Dizzy Spells" or "Fiery Crash" will likely be disappointed. But if you're a fan who lights up when Bird focuses more on his particular brand of whispered intimacy, this could be the record you've been waiting for — the one that dispenses with a lot of the quirk and goes right for your earnest-bone. Bird's music has never sounded so unapologetically serious, and occasionally stunningly gorgeous, as it does here.
This is not to say that the individual elements of the familiar Andrew Bird vocabulary aren't present. "Desperation Breeds ..." kicks things off with a round-up of sounds in the Bird lexicon: the tick-tocking looped violin pizzicato, the whistling, the glockenspeil, drummer Martin Dosh's jazzy brush-slaps on the snare, and Bird's trademark oblique, bouncy wordplay floating on top. There's another treat in the song, though: a small dose of the white-hot violin soloing Bird has been showcasing for the past couple of years, particularly in his increasingly common solo performances of improvisatory, mostly instrumental loops and noodlings such as that highlighted in his "Gezelligheid" concert tour of churches back in 2009. Rather than come across as self-indulgent though, Bird's solos are joyous, almost ecstatic mini-explosions that will give you at least a smile and at best a shiver.
A song like "Give It Away" could have been a single, but its straightforward 4/4 passages are broken up by sections of jazz-tinged, looped excursions that will sound like — horrors! — "jamming" to those allergic to anything containing a hint of improvisatory freedom. Still, the album's clear radio offering, "Eyeoneye," follows directly, with its repeating lyrics and sing-along chorus. The tune has a slightly perfunctory quality, as if Bird would prefer to not be doing this kind of thing anymore; he's more interested in crouching in more introspective spaces, and he gets right back to them in short order and stays there for the rest of the disc. "Lazy Projector" sounds exactly like its title, and while songs such as "Near Death Experience Experience" and "Lusitania" don't quite serve up the same feeling of inert-ness, they nonetheless suggest an artist fully embracing his melancholia.
There aren't too many genuine surprises on the disc, but when they come, they're delightful. After all these years that Bird has been consciously avoiding any sort of traditional-sounding folk idioms in favor of his trademark genre-less acoustic chamber pop, "Danse Carribe" proves that when he finally dips his toe into folkier waters, we can still count on him to keep us off balance with a tune that manages to sound half-hoedown, half-Celtic, and not really the least bit Caribbean. A couple songs appear to be throwaway filler tracks, but for die-hard Birdians, they'll provide moments of knowing winks: "Polynation" actually foregrounds the mechanical sound of Bird's looping pedals clicking and switching as the poorly-recorded violin strums chunk along behind them as almost an afterthought. "Things Behind The Barn" is another instrumental miniature, its title no doubt an in-joke for fans familiar with Bird's converted recording studio lair where he spins out untold hours of these kinds of lonely, haunting little nuggets of instrumental whimsy that sometimes become songs and sometimes don't.
By the time we arrive at the album's closer "Hole In The Ocean Floor" (not counting an instrumental outro track that's largely ambient percussion), Bird has readied us for the grand emotional exultation, an extended taste of one of those cathedral-sized loop hymns, and a song that raises all the stakes he's set up thus far. Personally, it's hard for me to imagine how a listener couldn't be pulled into this music — gorgeously layered, patiently lovely, like an inhaling, exhaling, organic symphony-machine, its dials and levers manipulated by Bird while he sings along to himself as if he's the last man on earth.
It will be interesting to see if other fans and critics give Bird comparatively lower marks this time out for delivering an album short on the kind of "clever songcraft" he's come to be known for. For this fan, that's not a bug, just a feature. When Andrew Bird's mind is allowed to roam — and his violin and looping-pedals allowed to follow wherever he might lead them — beautiful music is simply the end product, be it in the form of a finely-burnished pop song or a more wistful sonic rumination. Break It Yourself is a rewarding addition to Bird's catalog, a place to settle even more deeply into his eccentric but friendly musical hideaway and make yourself at home.