Andrew Bird's music has always been meticulous — a network of tenderly manipulated loops and textures, sent soaring by his emotive violin work, expert whistling and delightfully opaque lyrical musings. But there was always something beneath the surface, palpable on everything from the fastidious, tightly wound Andrew Bird and the Mysterious Production of Eggs to the broody, dynamic Armchair Apocrypha: It's a wild, joyful swoon, a rhythmic unpredictability, a sense of surprise. Bird's latest, Break It Yourself, is the most prominent showcase yet for that wily undercurrent. Recorded live in a barn with a group of trusted collaborators, this album might be as close as we ever get to Bird unleashed.
"I haven't made a record like this since the real early days, when we used to play old-time jazz stuff into one microphone," explains Bird, speaking to the Scene by phone. "This is similar to that, in that it's a performance rather than a carefully put-together production. And it's the first time I've really let the band be so part of the recording process. Everything was live — it's seven tracks in one room, no isolation or separation between musicians, just us feeling our way through the songs."
That wasn't the original plan: The session that became Break It Yourself was originally conceived as a simple summer get-together for the band — a time to rehearse, workshop the new songs and enjoy some time at Bird's farm in rural Illinois. "We never jam as a band," says Bird. "We're not in the same city, and jamming has been kind of a bad word for the last decade. ... We realized early on that we were starting to nail it — that we would be hard-pressed to beat this any other time. There are just a lot of nice accidents on the record."
Those lovely little accidents are symptomatic of an overarching looseness — the act of improvising around a microphone results in an easy kind of magic. Songs like "Danse Caribe" and "Eyeoneye" have an upbeat, sunshiny quality, while the beguiling instrumental "Behind the Barn" captures a more intimate late-night interplay. Even the lolling, pastoral splendor of "Lusitania," which opens with a simple whistle and acoustic guitar, has a transgressive sort of ramshackle energy.
The recording process might have been impulsive, but Bird is still Bird: He spent a year or two workshopping the underlying violin loops by himself, experimenting with patterns, honing songs and crafting the scaffolding for these collaborations. "Like with 'Desperation Breeds ... ' for instance, it's just the two-chord pizzicato pattern," he explains. "[The band] won't seek to replace the loop, they'll just find their place around the loop. Everyone was just kind of going with their first instincts. We didn't really even know how to end the song — we all just kind of looked at each other. So there was this excitement about it. There wasn't that pressure, like, 'Oh my God, this is the take that's going to go down for the record and be what we're judged on for the next three, four years.' It was just playing."
One exception is the wonderfully weird and beautiful "Orpheo Looks Back." Bird plays that one all by his lonesome. It's composed of two seemingly disparate parts and features some of the earthiest, most gloriously ragged violin playing ever heard on his recorded material. It's rural tavern fiddler meets urban orchestra. "I guess it doesn't get represented that much, but I play like that all the time," admits Bird. "I have two modes of playing. One is more like a tenor player; it's kind of these smooth, melismatic lines. And the other one is kind of broken up. When I was younger I used to play a lot of old-time music — Irish music, bluegrass, where you kind of make your own backbeat with your bow. And that's in there; I just kind of feel like maybe I've avoided it because it's so idiosyncratic."
Lyrically, Bird continues to mix ambiguity with simple, stirring proclamations. On the tremendously beautiful, melancholy "Sifters," he asks sweetly, repeatedly, "What if I were the night sky?" And on "Eyeoneye," he asserts the album's title sentiment, "No one can break your heart / so you break it yourself."
When the record was finished, Bird was able to reflect on the songs, and the process, as a whole ("A bit like psychoanalysis, for better or for worse"). "If there's an overarching theme, it's that autonomy is overrated," he explains. "It's considered a virtue, and it should be — to be self-sufficient and self-reliant — but we can take those things so far that you find yourself kind of isolated. And what's it all about anyway? We do live in a society. We do need each other. I think that's what's happening in these songs."
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