Photo by Cameron Wittig
If you've had the pleasure of seeing Andrew Bird perform live, you know that simply listening to Bird from the comfort of your iTunes is not-a-thing like seeing the man in person. As lovely as it is to listen to Andrew Bird's music via the magic of Bose in-ear headphones, seeing him live yields an entirely different take on the expansive breadth of his talent. This begs the question: How then, should one go about the task of reviewing Bird's latest release, Noble Beast, when the knowledge nags at the back of the mind that, in person, these songs will shift and morph to the point that some of them are rendered nearly untraceable to the original?
Such is the particular alchemy of Bird's compositions. He has spoken at length about his songwriting process, likening the very act of breathing to the gestation of a melody, conclusively arriving to a point where, for him, simply going about his day is enough to ostensibly craft an album's worth of music. How, then, does one begin to digest Noble Beast? As a singular expression of Bird's vast and inimitable mental ouevre, or as a proper album of songs within the chronology of his previous work? And where, oh where, does that explosively organic live show fit into the equation?
Noble Beast is, in some ways, a return to the gnarled roots of Andrew Bird's musical past. Much of the loose, rhythmic picks and squaws owe a nod to Weather Systems and Fingerlings, while his subject matter seems to have taken a slight turn inward in the second half. But in the interest of full disclosure, I'll be the first to point out that Noble Beast isn't for everyone. Fans of Andrew Bird's swelling pop pronouncements in Armchair Apocrypha will likely feel jilted by Noble Beast's meandering subtlety. Those who are hoping for The Mysterious Production of Eggs Part II will be equally (and undeniably) left wanting. Noble Beast isn't so much a resolution to either of those albums as it is a contemplative look at the melodies that shape Andrew Bird's daily life.
"Masterswarm" is a brooding, elliptical meditation on age and aging, the young replacing the old. "Fitz & Dizzyspells" continues this theme set to a driving beat exploding occasionally with the crash of a high-hat as Bird sings about lava flowing to the sea and exploding "in a steam heat fevered cyclical motion." And somehow, upon repeated listenings, there's a moment in halfway-point "Nomenclature" where everything clicks into place. Bird strikes his guitar to a throbbing drumline and his vocals soar, "Did it carry you away?"
From that point, the album takes a near-imperceptible turn, the more-or-less pluckiness of the first half settling into a somber, melancholic swirl. It's at this moment that whatever musical journey Andrew Bird has taken to get to this place in his career is moot. What matters is what's happening right now on Noble Beast - there is a sense of immediacy and intimacy that's almost tangible. If you miss this, then you've missed the point entirely.
There are more than a few times I found myself staring into space while listening to Noble Beast. True, it's not an album that reaches out aggressively to clutch at its listener's ear. But it does require repeated listenings, quietly demanding proper attention to be paid to its hypnotic nuances. There is a moment on "Anonanimal" wherein Bird pauses and notes, "hold on just a second, don't tell me this one - you know I know this one, I know this song, I know this one, I love this song." After giving Noble Beast a couple of weeks to sink in, to burrow and swarm and take hold, a moment like that one reveals itself not like the introduction of new material to the mind's gray matter, but rather, as a memory emerging from the distant pool where nostalgia, melancholy, and reminiscence eddy.
To pull together the loose strings flailing at the edges of Bird's burgeoning career is a futile effort at this point; the man is on a journey few of us can understand. What's best is to take each album for what it's worth: a meditation on the varying aspects that comprise a musical genius. In that sense, Noble Beast is unparalleled in its scope and vision, in the same way that Armchair Apocrypha or Weather Systems or Mysterious Production of Eggs should be regarded as a singular effort. And any of these musical expressions should be considered as a separate entity from Bird's incredibly effusive live shows. Which, by the way, if you've only just listened to Andrew Bird in the privacy of your own home or car, by God, get out of the house and buy a ticket to see the man in person immediately.