To some, falling in love, getting married, and having a baby might mean slowing down and taking a break professionally. However, to Andrew Bird, it appeared to have the reverse effect, inspiring many of the tracks on his new release, Are You Serious, and launching an international tour.
When we last heard from him in 2015, Bird had released a fairly out-there, instrumental album (Echolocations: Canyon) that was recorded in, you guessed it, an actual canyon in Utah. Prior to that, fans (Birdheads?) were treated to the more folky and countrified Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of... (2014) and Hands of Glory (2012) albums. Though we still got those trademark Bird swelling violin strings and an impressive wall-of-sound effect from using his looping pedal, he was also plucking and strumming his violin, giving his music an old-timey country feel. He added some snare, a thumping upright bass, and backing vocals to occasionally harmonize with (including Tift Merritt, a wildly talented singer in her own right).
On past albums, his lyrics tended to be more than a bit verbose, erudite, and cryptic. Let's take his song "Tenuousness" as a random example: "Tenuousness, less seven comes to three/Them, you, us plus eleven comes just shy of infinity/And as for those who live and die from numerology." Sure Andrew, whatever you say.
On his new album, this changes, as is bound to happen when your personal life does a bit of a 180. On Are You Serious, Bird comes about as close to making a rock record as he probably ever will. Though Highway to Hell it is not, as Bird's trademark violin and languid vocals are still front and center. This time guitar and drums are added and a few tracks might even be described as "danceable." The biggest departure is in the lyrics department. No longer will you be wondering "What in the world is that boy babbling about now?!," because he'll actually, straight-up tell you.
"Valleys of the Young," one of the strongest tracks lyrically, expresses how much changed for he and his wife once they had their first child. "Do you need a reason we should commit treason and bring into this world a son?/And leave the valleys of the young...of brunch and tedium./Where your friends will become strange to you just as you will become strange to them, and live across a great divide." To many parents I'm sure (I wouldn't know personally, as I am still among the "brunch and tedium" group), these lyrics are relatable, yet not even an ounce clichéd.
"I didn't want it to be the Andrew-Bird-grows-up song that only people who have gone through this will relate to," Bird explains of "Valleys" in a recent interview on NPR. "You want it to hit everybody, so I think the music had to really be somewhat brutal and grab you and make you pay attention." With its controlled melodies and rock instruments used, it does just that.
On the album's debut single, "Left Handed Kisses," another strong track, Bird duets with Fiona Apple. Though he has been performing this song live for a while now, this is the best I've heard it sound. Trading off on vocal duties, line by line, Apple's weathered, husky voice pairs perfectly with Andrew's more pure sound, to create a song that I could easily listen to over and over on repeat.
"The New Saint Jude" showcases a much looser side to Bird, both in sound quality (you can hear a bit of raspiness in the mic as he sings) and in the lyrics ("Ever since I gave up hope, I've been feeling so much better"). "Roma Fade," a song that Bird jokes could be about him stalking someone, is apparently actually about seeing his future wife for the first time from across the room ("Know someone's watching you, watching me watching you... you may not know me, but you feel my stare"). Creepiness aside, it has a wonderfully bouncy, catchy, pop quality to it, and is a must-listen track. "Puma," another upbeat tune, really seems to capture the gleeful giddiness of someone in love.
Though I give this album high marks and encourage you to check it out, more so do I encourage you to see him live, as this is where he truly shines. Among his fans (a degree-in-English-holding, urban-dwelling, Sanders-voting, and let's be honest, pretty WASP-y group of people), the man is an absolute rockstar up on stage, when he's really into his music, wailin' on his 'lin. It's here that you fully realize what a special artist he is. He's one of the best live acts I've ever seen (and I just saw Springsteen live a couple weeks ago). However, if you're unable to get a ticket to one of his shows, listening to Are You Serious is a pretty darn good alternative!
This article was originally published here.