Break It Yourself

Is there anyone in music today as astute as Andrew Bird in creating what critics like to call “soundscapes?” To immerse yourself in one of his albums is to journey away from the ordinary to a place where hyper-intellectual thought processes masquerading as lyrics drift aloft incandescent melodies. Genres merge and mutate making cataloging pointless. Bird’s fascination with obscure knowledge pours out in his lyrics.

If Break It Yourself projects a sense of place perhaps it is created by the location of the recording and the circumstances under which it was recorded. After fifteen years of recording and touring, Bird retreated to his Illinois farm. It was there in his barn, a space he refers to as a sacred place that the recording occurred. In two separate sessions, the first in August of 2010, the second in August of 2011, Bird invited his band to join him for a relaxed jam session. After listening back to the work Bird realized that he had a record. Most tracks remain as they were recorded live with minimal tweaking in Bird’s mix.

Not surprisingly, Break It Yourself is mostly a quiet, laid back affair. Notably the violin has stepped back into the forefront. On his most recent albums, particularly Noble Beast, Bird focused more on electric guitar and a rock structure for his songs. His classical training is more apparent here, but so is his ability to use the instrument as a folk, jazz, or rock instrument. It’s plucked, bowed, strummed, looped, and distorted. The competing genres bleed through songs, making the progress of the album unpredictable. Only “Eyeoneye” is a clear single with something close to a pop structure. Break It Yourself is a delight for advocates of twists and turns as glockenspiel and saxophone meander through acoustic and electric guitars, keyboards, bass, and drums. Bird’s trademark whistling is integral to his sound as it offsets the violin by cutting through it like a knife cutting neatly through butter.

Bird’s esoteric lyrical interests have often leaned towards science, mythology, and history. Break It Yourself opens with “Desperation Breeds” in which Bird sings “Beekeeper sing of your frustration/In this litigious breeze/Of accidental pollination/In this era without bees.”
Most of the songs here are about relationships and emotions although Bird keeps his word count to a minimum. Much of it is metaphorical and always original. The purpose of Bird’s lyrics often seems to be as embellishment the music. Short instrumental pieces are interspersed throughout the album, adding to the overall. Bird’s collaborator include backing vocalist Nora O’Connor of The Blacks, and drummer Martin Dosh, who has appeared on many of Bird’s past recordings. Annie Clark, aka, St. Vincent, duets on “Lusitania.”

Break It Yourself is a subtle record and demands your uninterrupted attention and multiple listens. It will take more than one go through to access the true beauty and intricacy of this album. It is well worth your time.

Rosemary Welsch (afternoon host)