Even before he wrote the score for the 2011 indie film Norman, Andrew Bird always made cinematic music, combining the basic ingredients of spaghetti western soundtracks – violins, acoustic guitars, lots and lots of whistling –with something hipper, meatier, and more appropriate for the iPod generation. On Break It Yourself, his first solo album since 2009’s Noble Beast, he dishes up more baroque pop songs with brainy, tongue-twister lyrics. Bird still sounds like he’s making songs for movies, whether real or imaginary, but he’s no longer a tight-fisted director, and Break It Yourself boasts the most collaborative backup band – an ensemble cast, if you will – of his solo career. The players, many of them returning from previous Bird projects, are given the freedom to make up their own parts, resulting in an album that’s looser and more mercurial than anything since his Bowl of Fire days.
Break It Yourself was recorded in a week. Andrew Bird had originally intended on using that week for rehearsal, allowing his bandmates – longtime drummer Martin Dosh, guitarist/keyboardist Jeremy Ylvisaker, and bassist/saxophonist Mike Lewis – the chance to learn fourteen new songs over several days. What began as leisurely band practice quickly turned into an inspired recording session, with most of the songs being captured in two or three live takes. You can feel that sense of urgency on tracks like “Eyeoneye,” with its four-on-the-floor percussion and sixteenth-note guitar intro, and “Desperation Breeds…,” a slow-burning folk song that ends with several minutes of high-brow jamming. Even the slower songs barrel forward with a sort of organic directness, free of the complicated loops that were once such a crucial part of the Andrew Bird sound. This is a band album, not a solo project, and the music flows accordingly.
There are exceptions, of course. “Sifters” is built upon a hypnotic bass pattern that repeats itself into gorgeous oblivion, and the handful of instrumental numbers – “Polynation,” “Belles,” “Behind the Barn” –are slow and meditative. “Hole In The Ocean Floor” even breaks the loop pedal out of storage, allowing the band to take a break while Bird plays the entire eight-minute opus himself. But those tracks are balanced by some of his most melody-driven songs to date, from the poppy “Give It Away” to the mid-tempo, Ryan Adams-ish “Lusitania,” which features St. Vincent on guest vocals. The music is rootsy, even rustic at points – you can almost hear the converted barn where the band set up shop – and it balances its Americana twang with Caribbean polyrhythms, classical flourishes, and Celtic folk influences. The genres are mashed together, so songs like “Danse Caribe” begin with tropical instrumentation before giving way to a barn-burning hoedown led by Bird’s violin. If you ever wondered what sort of wide-ranging stuff fills Andrew Bird’s record collection, this album gives a pretty good indication.
Bird clearly reads a lot. With a mind full of SAT vocabulary words, he can’t help but pack his new songs with bookish metaphors, using the Orpheus myth as a setting for one song and likening a heated, war-torn relationship to the sinking of the Lusitania in another. When Break It Yourself comes to an end, though, it does so with a simple, wordless field recording. Crickets chirp while chimes ring in the background, as though the entire track was recorded outside, at night, while a nearby church tolled its bells. Perhaps Bird flung open the barn doors to capture the sounds of the countryside, or maybe he added the sound effects as overdubs. It doesn’t matter. Break It Yourself pulls you into Bird’s imaginary world, a place where people whistle as often as they speak and musical traditions flow between countries like water. It’s mood music with a melody, orchestral pop without the pomp, midwest Americana with Euro-classical training. And despite the title, it’s far from broken.