What happens when an artist has more or less perfected the sound he’s built over a lifetime of music and performance? Do we demand a wild shift, something that puts him back at square one so we can witness another starry climb? Is disappointment appropriate when a new effort deviates little from the path? Case by case, the answers may vary. With Andrew Bird – a dependable creator of gorgeous, intricate music, a virtuosic violinist and intelligent lyricist – a record that walks the same roads is worthy of praise if for no other reason than that it’s a smooth, often beautiful road to walk.
Break it Yourself is less unified than Armchair Apocrypha (a decidedly guitar-centric, pop rock album) but less whirling and scattered than Noble Beast. It takes far fewer risks than either album, and there’s no single mind-blowing track (see: “Armchairs” or “Anonanimal”). Rather, this latest effort from Bird is comfortable, like an old, warm coat or the guitar you haven’t picked up in a while, a record tinged with more nostalgia than raw creative force. You almost get the sense that Bird is getting tired (the documentary Fever Year, which follows his, well, fevered last few tour dates of 2011, shows Bird on his last leg). And while Break it Yourself features several songs that belong with Bird’s best, without the unexpected strains of Noble Beast to keep the mellow songs interesting, parts of Break it Yourself fall a bit flat. “Lazy Projector” is far too standard (by Bird’s standards), and “Near Death Experience Experience,” while recalling “Imitosis” from Armchair Apocrypha, lacks the urgency and punch of most of Bird’s work. “Lusitania,” which features the lovely coo of St. Vincent’s Annie Clark, undermines a fluid, shimmering resolution with a too-playful whistled refrain. At its best, though, Bird’s whistling elevates his compositions and bestows on them a kind of ghostly, faraway tone.
Single “Eyeoneye,” one of the fullest tracks on the record, both reaffirms the pop tendencies present in Armchair Apocrypha and showcases Bird’s ability to sneak cerebral lyrics into those pop structures. Melding the concept of feedback with emotional self-destruction, he tells us “When the eye that eyes itself is your eye / And the ear that hears itself is near / Then you’re getting too close to your source.” “Give It Away,” another early track, seamlessly melds emotion with sterile, economic language: “I didn’t know that your love was a commodity.” “Danse Caribe” turns on a dime from a lilting calypso shuffle to an upbeat fiddle dance. Following these tracks, though, there’s little to hang on to until penultimate track “Hole in the Ocean Floor,” a lush geography of sound that reminds us what Bird is capable of. The bottom line is that Bird operates far above most of his peers, whether in terms of his voice, lyrics, musicianship or compositional ability. His own shoes are the ones to fill, which makes his excellent previous efforts his biggest competition. Break it Yourself dodges the feedback of erring too closely to its own sources – but not all of it soars.