Andrew Bird is a genius. Love him or hate him, it’s hard to get over how proficient he is with every instrument he uses, from his voice to his violin. He’s a tremendous wordsmith, and though he can seem boring at times, it’s often hard to deny that there is a calm, beautiful mood to every record he releases.
The first thing you notice when you listen to Break it Yourself, album number six for Mr. Bird, is his voice. But you don’t notice it in the way you did on, say, Armchair Apocrypha: you notice it because it’s almost non-existent. “Desperation Breeds…” is a unique song for Bird, because he is present, but only very quietly, and it takes nearly a minute for his voice to even make an appearance. It’s almost disconcerting, being that it, and everything he does with it, are a major part of what he, as a musician, is all about.
Break it Yourself is undeniably an Andrew Bird record, and like any good Andrew Bird record, it has its own quirks, much like the underlying drama of Armchair Apocrypha, or the organic beating heart of Noble Beast. Here, Bird plays it close to the chest, never quite letting things get too out of hand. It’s not a terrible thing, really; there’s something refreshing about the fact that, at any given point, there’s no danger of things bursting out of control, even if it is one of the things that makes his music so engaging. Here, he seems at ease, in such a way that you can almost picture him recording these albums on his back porch, in jeans and a t-shirt; here, we see a genius letting his hair down.
As the record goes along, things start to feel more like typical fair, but only if you really look hard for the similarities. The whistle-and-swell of “Lazy Projector” call back to the past, most perfectly in the “Armchairs” callback with the line “Though history repeats itself, and time’s a crooked bow.” “Near Death Experience Experience” is more than a reminder of the lounge act swagger of “Imitosis,” if only a little less energetic. Halfway through the album, it’s clear to see that, for better or worse, the album may be his laziest and most carefree to date.
That is, of course, until you hit “Hole in the Ocean Floor.” Clocking in at just over 8 minutes, you can’t help but wonder if he was saving all of his usual tricks for this one song. It plucks along beautifully for two-and-a-half minutes before Bird makes his entrance, and though it never swells or soars to his normal heights, it never quite feels like it needs to. The length of the song, though excessive, goes by like a breeze, even though the maestro is absent for half of it. It’s possible that, next to “Lazy Projector,” this is the track that truly stands out the most on the record, and indeed in Bird’s catalog as a whole.
The question that I find myself asking myself is this: Will Andrew Bird start making records like this? It’s a novel idea, really. He’s spent all of his career making music that felt big enough to match his talent as a musician, why not spend a little time making music that can be listened to with pure enjoyment, rather than with a microscope. It’s entirely possible that Break it Yourself, while marked by a lack of ambition, is his best record since The Mysterious Production of Eggs, and possibly his best overall, but this is an album that doesn’t ask for comparison, only for you to listen and enjoy. For once, I don’t feel like his music needs to be analyzed, because for once, his music speaks for itself.