I remember reading somewhere that one of Andrew Bird’s first musically inclined jobs was as a strolling minstrel in a Renaissance fare. Whether or not this is true, it certainly would make a lot of sense: Bird is a highly skilled violinist, more than capable of handling technically challenging classical pieces, with an ear for traditional music. His earliest albums, including his largely forgotten debut Music of Hair, are heavily influenced by traditional folk music. Many of these records include songs with titles that end in words like “Waltz,” or “Swing,” and see Bird not as the highly experimental, looping eccentric that he is today, but instead as a relatively conventional violinist. Rather than including patchworks of ambient swells and layered strings, Bird’s early work finds him playing more melodically and writing fairly straightforward story-songs of love and betrayal.
Considering all this, it’s tempting to see Bird’s latest album, Break It Yourself, as an artist returning to his roots. While the album is a far cry from the music you might hear from the stands at a local jousting tournament, it is much more direct than Bird’s recent and popular offerings like 2005’s The Mysterious Production of Eggs, 2007’s Armchair Apocrypha, or even 2009’s largely acoustic Noble Beast. Break It Yourself showcases Bird as a songwriter first and an arranger second for the first time in a long time. Several songs feature little more percussion than the clip of Bird’s loop pedal or the occasional strum of muted strings, and the drum tracks that are present on the album are far less fussy than on tracks from his back catalogue like “Not a Robot, But a Ghost,” or, “Simple X.” On first listen, Break It Yourself is more striking for what it lacks than what it contains, but, once the sound of empty space settles in, it’s an album that reveals itself as starkly personal and beautiful.
Album standout “Give it Away,” states very clearly the artistic preference towards simplicity that Break It Yourself exhibits. Over pizzicato violin plucking, Bird harmonizes with a female vocalist the line: “Charts and graphs don’t mean a thing to me.” The lyric stands as somewhat of a thesis statement for Break It Yourself as a whole. Gone are the ancient sea slugs and petri dishes that run rampant through Armchair Apocrypha, the medical and industrial themes that occupy The Mysterious Production of Eggs, and Noble Beast’s fascinations with evolution, and in their place stand colonies of bees and narrators that mistake clouds for mountains. Tracks like “Danse Carribe,” and “Hole in the Ocean Floor,” look at nature not from a specifically scientific standpoint, but from a physical and emotional one.
Bird not only approaches nature more directly on his new record, but internal human emotions as well. On the lilting “Lazy Projector,” Bird bluntly sings, “I can’t see the sense in us breaking up at all.” It’s one of the most vulnerable lyrics of his career, and one of Break It Yourself’s most affecting moments. “Sifters,” arguable the album’s strongest track, thrives on a similar sentimentality. Throughout the song, the narrator imagines different ways in which a particular relationship could’ve played out. Bird sings, “What if we hadn’t been born at the same time?” with a calm intensity as if the thought is a legitimate concern. He continues, “What if you were 75, and I was 9? Would I come visit you?” While they might not be original themes, Bird explores the ideas of love and friendship in an impressively un-cheesy way on “Sifters.”
All in all, Break It Yourself is a pretty apt titled for Bird’s ninth studio album. It sees him taking his most endearing qualities, namely his voice and virtuosic string playing, and breaking them down to their purest forms. As is usually the case with his albums, Bird has crafted a sophisticated collection of songs in Break It Yourself; what’s new is that there’s no digging involved in enjoying it. This may be off-putting to some fans. After all, there is some joy in sifting through a difficult album until you find the glimpses of genius that eventually jump out at you. But, there’s also something really refreshing in listening to an album just for the sheer pleasure of hearing a talented artist’s work, and, hopefully, feeling what he feels.