In its seamless, wide-scope instrumentals, Armchair Apocrypha is engaging and robust. In its more straightforward moments, it retains a quirkiness that sacrifices none of Andrew Bird's intelligence or quirky accessibility. Its lyrics are fully realized and particular, current and archaic in turns. It is an exceptional album. With one exception.[more:]
The caveat to Armchair Apocrypha is that it follows Bird's 2005 masterpiece (and Prefix's best record of the year), Andrew Bird & The Mysterious Production of Eggs. So for all its epic, wide-angle beauty and its specialized, careful amalgams of processed and natural sounds, Armchair Apocrypha cannot escape being juxtaposed against that album, which set the bar so high.
One of the most immediately affecting songs from The Mysterious Production of Eggs, a song that heralded a supremely gifted instrumentalist, lyricist and singer, is "Fake Palindromes." It's anything but conventional, as Bird loops a two-measure violin over a lightly distorted but urgent guitar and insistent drums, fulfilling a brief but complete, and completely new, vision. "Heretics" is the natural successor to "Palindromes," but it is different -- not better or worse -- in several ways. These differences, slight as they are, illuminate the heart (and marrow, dark matter, cellular and chemical reactions) at the core of Armchair Apocrypha, which has a more content, relaxed feel than its predecessor does. "Heretics" plays like a less exact version of "Palindromes," which may leave some wishing for a quicker attack. Likewise, on songs like "Cataracts" and "Scythian Empires," the complex array of instruments is given time to build, to stretch and coalesce in a more organic way.
Is there a loss in the waiting? That's a personal decision. But the more up-tempo songs on Eggs ("A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left," "Banking on a Myth," "Skin Is, My") feel sharper-edged than what's here, funkier in their staccato melody lines and deliberately off-center lyrics: "From Star Search to the Philharmonic/ He'll get you there with Hooked on Phonics" ("Banking on a Myth"). It's not restraint or maturation that influences the new record; it's exploration.
Armchair's more up-tempo songs ("Plasticities," "Imitosis" and the stunning "Simple X") still lyrically "deal in commodities of the abstract sort," but they have a noticeably more robust quality. They won't snare you with sharp edges; instead, they envelop. "Fiery Crash" opens the album with electric guitar, but it isn't until "Imitosis" (a reworking of "I" from Bird's 2003 album, Weather Systems) that we're hit with what Bird is so adept at, the blending of vaguely Eastern European violin lines and references to Pynchon with suggestions that the human condition is merely a result of uncontrollable cell-division. "Despite what all his studies had shown/ That what's mistaken for closeness/ Is just a case of mitosis." All of it atop drummer Martin Dosh's composite sampled/live polyrhythm; it's science and the arts, the synthesized experiment and the naked truth, together. It's clever and careful and subtly emotional. Credit must be given to Dosh, Bird's longtime collaborator, whose electronic proficiency, dexterity and taste allow Bird the crystalline execution of his very specific vision. Without Dosh, a song like "Simple X" would still be elegant and quietly powerful, but it's the clipped hip-hop beat and looped piano (think Thom Yorke's "Atoms for Peace" held over a crackling campfire) balancing with Bird's sampled violin swells that make it memorable.
If "Heretics" exposed the more understated nature of Armchair Apocrypha, it's standout track "Armchairs" that aims to carry that subtle torch farther. Again, it's not a distinct violin melody that punctuates but a careful and exquisite piano line. For the verses, Bird's on acoustic guitar, while the violin exists in the background, swelling and mixing with the other "atmospherics" Dosh is credited for. It's not a wall of sound as much as a pond where Dosh and Bird deposit bells, brushed drums, whistles and guitars and gently blow them around. (Ironically, this is the album's fullest, most sweeping song, and it features only the two of them; they are joined on several others by guitarist Ben Durrant, bassist Chris Morrissey and singer Haley Bonar).
But near the five-minute mark (it's a seven-minute track), the wind begins to blow heavy. Bird advises, "Grab hold of your bootstraps/ And pull like hell," and soon the music follows, for a brief chorus in which Bird expertly relieves the tension he'd been mixing all song. It slows again and then builds to a more cathartic ending, where Bird is not the scientist but a singer with a remarkable voice, singing, "You didn't write/ You didn't call/ It didn't cross your mind at all." In this moment (there are similar ones on "Dark Matter" and the very end of "Simple X"), you feel Bird's true transformative power. He has a ton of talent, nearly as many instruments, but he is at his core a great songwriter. It if takes longer for these songs to show that, well, it's worth the trip.
The songs on Armchair Apocrypha are broader, more sweeping in content and delivery than their immediate predecessors. All artists evolve and explore, and Bird has no one to answer to but himself and the already impressive standard he has set. Armchair Apocrypha is an exceptional album. Forget about the last album and listen to it on its own impressive merits. Then realize you don't have to choose.