Andrew Bird’s work has long been marked by idiosyncrasy. A solo artist since the early 2000s, his music has persistently exhibited whimsical touches like atmospheric whistling, meandering string passages and eclectic, clattering percussion. For this reason, it’s not hard to recognize any one of Bird’s songs as his own, especially when combined with the complexity, precision and careful arrangement he draws from his background as a classical violinist.
However, in his latest album, “Are You Serious,” released this past Sunday on Loma Vista records, he takes a step away from eccentricity, presenting a collection of tracks that veer closer to pop than much of his earlier work. Despite this stylistic shift, Bird’s instrumental mastery and deft lyrics continue to define his music. And considering the success and critical acclaim he’s achieved throughout his solo career, this makes “Are You Serious” an album of just the caliber we’ve come to expect from a masterful musician like Bird.
“Are You Serious” is Bird’s first album since his marriage and the birth of his first child. Accordingly, the thematic territory it traverses reflects the personal evolution he’s undergone. In the title track, he acknowledges his past unwillingness to settle down, but defends his choices to an unnamed listener. And in “Valleys of the Young” – an ambitious, earnestly delivered standout track that highlights the latter half of the album – he weighs the fraught decision of trading the comfortable limbo of young adulthood for the higher emotional stakes of parenthood and marriage.
With trademark lyrical craft, he paints the early twenties as “valleys of brunch and tedium/where your friends will become strange to you/as you will become strange to them” – a cutting assessment that might ring true with many a graduating college student, especially as the academic year comes to a close. Between the emotional intelligence of the lyrics, the honesty of their delivery and the quality of the music that underlies it all, “Valleys” is Bird doing what he does best — work that long-time fans will no doubt find pleasing.
But this album is no carbon copy of Bird’s past work. In addition to fanciful tracks like “Roma Fade,” “Are You Serious” features tracks that hew closer to traditional, up-tempo alt-pop – more accessible, airwave-ready songs that might draw new listeners to the artist’s flock. “Left-Handed Kisses,” a spare, sweet duet with indie darling Fiona Apple, has already proved popular, retaining Bird’s trademark lyrical expertise while presenting a finished product that might appeal to a wider audience. “Capsized” has similar stylistic qualities, but less deft lyricism. The delivery is slick, but borders on detached. Here, Bird is telling a less authentic story, one further removed from his own narrative and more tailored to the generic experiences of an invisible listener.
“Capsized” though is an exception to the rule. Despite occasional mainstream leanings, “Are You Serious” is authentic Andrew Bird. It’s a project as perceptive, stirring and well-crafted as we would expect from this immensely talented modern troubadour. Its more pop-inflected tracks might hook the listener in, but Bird’s dual affinity for personal storytelling and musical craft makes this an album worth returning to time and again.
Contact Clare Flanagan at ckflan ‘at’ stanford.edu.