The first time I listened to Andrew Bird was a decade ago, cross-legged on my high school crush’s bedroom floor. The song was a release from one of his early projects, Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire. As I tapped my foot to the twisting violin, my crush asked me if I knew what I was listening to. I paused, focused on the winding falsetto, and hazarded a guess: “Billie Holiday?”
It is very unlikely that anyone would hear traces of Billie Holiday in Andrew Bird’s newest record Are You Serious? This speaks to how awful my ear is, as well as the ease with which Bird effortlessly moves along a continuum of sound.
Over the last two decades, Bird has released 13 studio albums, a number of EPs, collaborations, a score to the new Zach Galifianakis show Baskets, and singles — one of which was featured in the most recent season of Orange is the New Black. In doing so, Bird has traversed the unexplored corners and combinations of jazz, blues, folk, pop, and experimental classical soundscapes.
Yet there is still continuity to his music. Bird always sews together playful semantic puzzles and eerie whistling hooks, couching them in the cadence of his violin.
Prior to Are You Serious?, his last release was Echolocations: Canyon, a seven-track album that Bird recorded in Utah’s Coyote Gulch. Using the natural acoustics of the hollow space to whistle and play his violin, the environment became an interchangeable part of his songs, embedded in the aching draw of the violin. The stark and sweeping album plays in sharp contrast to the loud, raw licks of Are You Serious?, which also reflects the environment of its inception: the studio.
In an interview with The Peak, Bird described his new record as forceful, loud, and intentional. He approached it thinking that “If the record is dead or dying, let’s do one more attempt at a high-quality album. [I] was determined to get people in the room as good as [myself] or better.” As a result, he enlisted the help of a producer for the first time and sought to challenge conceptions about his sound.
Are You Serious? is “an act of restraint from a virtuosic record,” carving out space for lyrics and hooks to move to the fore. Bird explained that he wanted to “grab people by the gut,” scaling back on his use of the violin and focusing on a dense, tight rhythm section.
Acknowledging the central role the violin plays in his music, Bird substituted it for the whistle or the guitar on this record, explaining that, “[the violin] has a lot of associations that can pull you away from the matter at hand.” Bird joked about the “Celtic mists” that the violin can summon, adding that he seeks to move away from those associations, as well as the impression people get when they see him and think, “A whistling violinist — how cute, how whimsical.”
The opening track of the album, “Capsized,” smashes through any cartoonish conceptions listeners may have of Bird, as its distorted guitar and vocal effect are more reminiscent of Breaking Bad than Planet Earth. Bird pointed to this song as emblematic of the struggle with sparsity he had on the record, as he constantly removed layers of violin and whistling that he worried would distract the listener from the raw power of the track.
“Valleys of the Young” is another track that reflects the changes Bird has made on this album. It’s a simple and stunning song about the life adjustments that come with parenthood.
Bird explained the process to creating this song: “A couple months ago we were people without a kid and now we have a kid. . . [we’re] in the trenches thinking, why didn’t anyone help us?” Bird wanted the song to be unavoidable in its honesty. He crafted it as a scouring, overwhelming message in order to force the listener to confront the wild reality of parenting. Bird speaks to this reality as beautiful and shattering, because “when you have a child, it’s kind of like your heart is constantly broken for the rest of your life.”
Referring to his notorious and enigmatic wordplay, Bird explained that his love of lyrical ambiguity was pushed to the side for this record. Bird took himself to task on this record and challenged himself with honesty, because “I like to do the thing that feels like it’s asking the most.” Scaling back on the coded metaphors led to the creation of sharp and intentional lyrics, which carve a narrative arc through the album for the listener to rest in.
Are You Serious? finds Bird asking himself the titular question throughout his songs, whether he jokingly sings about health and chemotherapy, or quietly confronts the changes of adulthood. You can catch Bird at the Orpheum on May 21, for a show which he promises will be sharp, tight, and oh-so-groovy.