“Are You Serious” gets honest

Image courtesy of Wegawam Music Co.

Are You Serious, Andrew Bird’s latest release, isn’t a risky album, but it is a great one. You may know Bird as the indie folk virtuoso who has mastered the arts of whistling and electronic looping. If you already like Bird, you’ll love this album. If you don’t know him, give it a shot. Lyrically, the album is a slight shift from Bird’s previous work, but sonically it’s a sample pack of Bird’s most successful songwriting techniques.

Enriched by Bird’s past few years experimenting in a wide range of genres (pure folk, instrumental electronic music, gaping soundscapes, and more), Are You Serious offers the most advanced versions of the many sounds Bird has developed in his decades-long career. The album permeates with Bird’s signature whistling and creative uses for his violin. They vary between stripped indie folk and layered, experimental pop. First time Bird-listeners should check out “Roma Fade” and “Puma” to get the full Andrew Bird experience: rap-clever rhymes, delightfully esoteric poetic images, and anthemic builds on par with Arcade Fire.

Bird also incorporates elements of the more divergent work he’s been doing in the four years since his last major album, 2012’s Break It Yourself. “Chemical Switches” and “Left Handed Kisses” work within the stripped acoustic folk sound Bird developed in Things Are Really Great Here…Sort Of, his folk album of Handsome Family covers. “Truth Lies Low,” with its slow, pulsing build; the breathing room Bird allows it (the song clocks in at 5:28); and the foregrounded fluttering fiddle could have been taken straight from Bird’s ambitious I Want to See Pulaski at Night 2013 EP. “Saints Preservus” benefits from the intimate feeling and Bird’s exploration of biblical themes of 2012’s Hands of Glory EP. The old-timey feeling of the strings in the bridge of the song also recalls Bird’s earlier work with Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire.

One small shift in Bird’s sound in Are You Serious is the incorporation of groove. “Capsized,” “Truth Lies Low”,and “Saints Preservus” all incorporate a laidback, pulsing feel uncommon in Bird’s previous work. Still, this adds up to a small tweak rather than a major departure.

So no, Are You Serious isn’t a radical musical change in Bird’s career, because it doesn’t need to be. Nobody can accuse Bird of playing it safe and sticking to what he knows. He’s been everything from a violin virtuoso to a master of looped compositions to a genuinely heartwarming folk performer. He’s written swing songs that’ll send you straight to the early 20th century and soundscapes that paint entire worlds for listeners. And even when Andrew Bird returns to his comfort zone, he’s far from phoning it in. Are You Serious is an album full of compelling, well-constructed songs, all of which demand multiple listenings.

There is one feature of Are You Serious Andrew Bird fans might be surprised by: in a few of the songs, the lyrics are totally direct. While it would be an overstatement to say that Bird has eschewed his lyrical abstractness in favor of frankness—many of the songs still discuss things in terms of subatomic particles and sweeping metaphors—he does venture into the realm of the remarkably candid.

The first of these shockingly forthright songs is “Left Handed Kisses.” This bantering duet between Bird and Fiona Apple may be the best indie love song collaboration since Wilco and Feist recorded “You and I.” It begins with Bird saying, “I don’t believe everything happens for a reason,” to which Apple replies, “To us romantics that amounts to high treason.” The song continues in that vein: a refreshingly confrontational conversation between the pair about how to reconcile a cynical brand of pragmatism with the feeling of falling in love. Some of the delightful casualness of “Left Handed Kisses” is no doubt due to the circumstances that produced the song; in a press release, Bird said, “The session was a long whiskey-fueled night – unhinged, for sure.” He continues, “All worth it, of course. I can’t write simple love songs. People are complex.”

The next unusually direct song on the album, “Valleys Of The Young,” is a more complex piece of music. It begins by referencing “Left Handed Kisses” by calling back the “reason/treason” rhyme. After a Modest Mouse-like bit of electric guitar, Bird asks, “Do you need a reason we should commit treason and bring into this world a son?” The song goes on, over layers of distorted guitar, swirling synth, and kick drum, to straightforwardly discuss how having a child immediately ages you. The chorus asks, “From their cradle to our grave, is it selfish or is it brave?” By the end, you’ll probably be tearing up. The song proves that Bird can capture complex emotions with or without his coded metaphors.

The last bit of disarming vulnerability comes at the final moment of the album, “Bellevue.” “Bellevue” is a sort of sequel to “Left Handed Kisses.” It is an unqualified celebration of love, building to a burst of warm, orchestral joy, and it ends its two-minute run with a plainspoken, “I think I found someone.” The song is not just charming, it’s essential to making the album work. Without it, “Left Handed Kisses” would not mark any growth at all. After all, if “Left Handed Kisses” concludes with Bird’s commitment to let himself be more romantic, then “Bellevue” is the direct result of this commitment.

However, its position as the last song on the album raises questions. It suggests that this kind of unchallenged acceptance of love is the happy ending of the album’s journey, which may not be giving the previous songs quite as much credit as they deserve. “Roma Fade” certainly wouldn’t be a better song if, instead of saying “When she sees you it changes you / rearranges your molecules,” Bird just said, “She has a strong impact on you.” The style of songwriting in “Bellevue” isn’t better than Bird’s previous work; it’s just another good way to write a song. On the other hand, Are You Serious is far from easy listening, so ending on a simple, happy love song like “Bellevue” may come as a welcome relief.

Are You Serious is probably not the best album to have playing in the background while you’re doing your homework or working out.  While moments of it are delightfully uplifting, sometimes it’s kind of a slog. To enjoy it, you’re going to want a good pair of headphones, a little focus, and a willingness to give Bird the benefit of the doubt. Just remember that he’s earned it. If you let it, Are You Serious will take you on an emotional journey so vividly expressed that it might just make a romantic out of you.

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