April 5, 2007

Armchair Made of Gold

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To put it simply, the Illinois native Andrew Bird solidifies himself as a masterful virtuoso on his latest effort, Armchair Apocrypha. Brimming with perplexing lyrics and brilliantly composed music, as well as incredible depth and well-balanced production, Armchair Apocrypha is a lesson on absolute harmony. A musical chameleon, Bird ensures that on the record, the shuffling snares, mournful violins, clashing cymbals and softly strummed guitars are not the only things synced in perfect unison. He blurs the ordinary elements of life into the surreal, providing a musical clinic on juxtaposition.
Armchair Apocrypha starts with a series of repetitive guitar down-strokes on “Fiery Crash,” providing the backdrop for Birds’ vivid tale of a harrowing air flight, albeit only a lover’s premonition. Bird describes the humdrum routine of air travel sharply, bringing to life the “turnstiles on mezzanine,” as well as sitting and watching “Lou Dobbs on every CNN screen.” Strumming along, as well as throwing in the occasional violin breakdown or whimsicall whistling, Bird carries the listener along for the ride — only to unceremoniously stop at the end, as he closes “Oh the line was starting to break up/ What was that you were going to say?” As morbid as aviation travels gone awry are, Andrew Bird nevertheless skillfully shapes his introspective ramblings into palpable stories, a theme that carries throughout the rest of the record.
One of the more stirring tracks on Armchair is the next song, “Imitosis.” An extension of his work on his earlier LP Weather Systems, Bird describes the steady and painful separation of people growing apart, on top of deftly plucked Latin guitar work and an understated bass line. Things are never that simple though, as Bird also takes a swipe at humanity’s growing addiction to explaining everything in scientific terms, musing if “this mistake for closeness/ was just a case of mitosis.” By breaking everything down to its constituent parts, Bird tries to understand “why do some show some mercy/ while others are painfully shy?”
Ultimately, Bird does branch out from his sole analysis of people, stepping back to look at the changing times. On this record, “Plasticities” assumes the position as an anthem for a generation, even though it starts quite timidly with its quiet palm muted guitar arpeggios and interlacing violins. The rousing chorus about a revolution hastily tosses a Molotov cocktail of melody into the seemingly stagnant song with Bird suddenly exclaiming, “We’ll fight, we’ll fight/ We’ll fight your music halls and dying cities!” He questions the current state of authority without a lot of subtlety, asking, “How can they be wrong/ when by committee they choose it all?” Bird follows this song up immediately with another scene-stealer, “Heretics.” The commencement of two contrasting guitars playing a simple scale before immediately falling behind a heavily Asian influenced violin movement is something to behold. Bird’s Suzuki Method, classical music training, really shines throughout the song, helping to set the stage for his clever metaphors. He hopes that people do not become simply signs that stand for nothing, “The kind you hang a door/ saying we’ll be back, what a crack,” as that is something, “we might have heard before.”
Andrew Bird’s album centerpiece is the seven-minute epic “Armchairs,” taking the listener into a meandering daytime reverie. Bird tries to transcend time and space on this song, jetting from the “space of cosmonauts” to the “bottom of gigantic craters,” noting ultimately that “time’s a crooked bow” over soulful piano chords. The musical arrangements on the song are particularly striking. Bird manages to show off some his composing prowess elsewhere on the album too. The two instrumentals on Armchair are pleasantly spaced and arranged. The first instrumental, “The Supine” sounds like the start of a large orchestral matter, that Bird unfortunately truncates too soon, only letting the listener get a minute of string and ambient bliss. The second affair, “Yawny at the Apocalypse” begins warmly, with about thirty seconds of actual songbirds chirping. The song tastes like springtime, as Bird then lets his piercingly shrill violin drones take center-stage.
Overall, it is evident that on Armchair Apocrypha, the singer-songwriter’s instrument of choice on this album is definitely the guitar, a departure from his previous work, although it helps here to establish a larger and richer sound. Fortunately, Bird does not completely abandon his string roots on the record — it is with a gentle violin playing in the background, as well as his famous whistling and other unorthodox oral additions that he branches out to create a fuller and more unique sound for himself. For the most part, the Decemberists and Sufjan fans should find the unassuming Bird accessible, though fans of Sufjan may be a bit surprised or possibly take offense that there are other great talents in the singer-songwriter genre.
Ultimately, if there is a single fault with the album, it is the fact that it is a bit of a challenge to get into; being both musically and lyrically dense (it is aural led in all honesty). However, once seated in this Armchair, those with a taste for music in its purest form, entwined with deep personal inquiries, should feel quite comfortable, as Andrew Bird transmutes these multifaceted questions into musical gold.