It was, admittedly, a little concerning that Andrew Bird would slate an album called Are You Serious? for release on April Fools Day. The violinist turned critical darling does not seem the sort to pull any fast ones on us, but one can never be too sure in the internet age. Yet it was clear that Bird was releasing new tracks. There was album art. And I’d been bad in the ensuing years since his last proper album, Break It Yourself. His Hands of Glory project was pushed to the back of my mind, and his Handsome Family cover album treated as if it was not a real offering. His instrumental Useless Creatures sits on my shelf, unlistened to, and his I Want To See Pulaski At Night was dropped without my even recognizing it as existing. As such, Are You Serious? comes as a long awaited album, but if I’d been doing due diligence, there would have been plenty of Andrew Bird to listen to in the meantime, including giving Break It Yourself a better listen. I knew, therefore, that Andrew’s newest would need to be on the list. When I couldn’t find it through my normal online avenues, I also knew it had to be bought ahead of listening. I think it’s only fair to trust an old musical friend like Andrew on things like this.
If there’s any word I wouldn’t use for Andrew Bird, it’s probably something groove based, and yet “Capsized” begins the album with some of his most soulful composition and definitely some of his most prominent bass. If there’s one theme to this album, I’d argue it is the bass itself, an instrument rarely characterizing Bird’s compositions, which tend to meld somewhere between the folksy and the glitchy as he strums guitars and plucks and strokes violins in unending layers of loops. While all of that is on the album, too, “Capsized” is a world apart in many ways. What this ends up meaning, for lack of a better explanation, is that this might be Andrew’s first proper “full band” album since his Bowl of Fire days. In my mind, no other album feels as much like a “combo” of musicians working together instead of the compositions of a singular mind. ”Valleys of the Young” uses that fullness to bring a classic rock feel to the album, with moments of full-on Wall-Of-Sound as well as riffage which would fit in with that era and a psychedelic 60s outro, punctuating the otherwise moody feel of Andrew’s work. This is definitely the “Armchairs” or “Souverian”: despite it’s relative brevity compared to those sprawling tracks, there’s a somber urgency equal to those previous offerings. Elsewhere, it takes on the flow of more traditional combo bands. ”Roma Fade” takes his violin compositions toward the gypsy music of Eastern Europe, and there are hints of the Iberian peninsula in “Saints Preservus” and “Are You Serious?” Embracing a proper backing band seems to allow the music to expand ever further.
This isn’t always used to step away from the old, however, but instead it frequently takes what was great and reinvents it. “The New Saint Jude” turns “Danse Caribe” on its head, taking everything that made that song great and adding a Graceland-era Paul Simon vibe to it. Just as its spiritual brother in song is a highlight of its own album, “…Saint Jude” is one here. “Truth Lies Low” has the bones of Armchair-era tracks like “Plasticities,” but that low end fleshes out the plinking strings with a jazzy warmth. It’s the first real sign that this album is both a step forward as well as a return to form. “Chemical Switches” goes back further, to “Masterfade,” all guitar and whistles, creating a sad but beautiful moment of vulnerability in an otherwise lusher-than-normal album. Interestingly even the guitar here feels like it is basking in bass. Then there’s “Are You Serious?” which captures the mood of “I”/”Imitosis,” possibly even more strongly than those previous tracks. It is no surprise when a band or an artist goes back to similar terrain, but to be able to rework the feel of a song which was already reworked to begin with and still produce a stand-alone product should give an idea of where Andrew’s musicianship stands.
The single by default, “Left Handed Kisses,” is sort of the odd-man out among these tracks. I was immediately reminded of a possible Beatles track given the tone in Andrew’s first line, but Fiona Apple’s rejoinder throws this off. It actually does make sense to bring the Fab Four into this, as “Kisses” is in many ways a more self conscious take on McCartney’s post-Beatles “Silly Love Songs,” and it’s also not a surprise to be thrown by Fiona, as her voice always seems to be a bit of an indictment, and is indeed used that way here. However, in the annals of female vocals on Andrew Bird albums, from indie names like Haley Bonar and Kelly Hogan to those equal in stature like Annie Clark, Fiona is distinctive in maybe the wrong ways. Her deep voice, crackling with cynicism, feels a bit too strong of a counterpoint against Andrew’s, and while the two mix fine in duet, the song, already a bit jumbled, never gels fully. It’s a shame, because this was in many ways the song I was most excited for, with two musicians I’ve grown to love in one place at the same time. What I hadn’t expected, and what ended up being true anyway, was a rejuvenated and re-inspired Bird after his increasingly folky recent efforts. Are You Serious? does not need this sort of starpower to shine. As for Fiona, she’ll have her moment to redeem herself later in the proceedings.