In addition to being one of the most talented pop musicians of his or any generation, Andrew Bird is a damn hard worker. As a solo artist, he has completed at least 10 releases since 2003’s Weather Systems, including instrumental albums, live compilations and EPs on top of five full-lengths. His loop-based compositions are a sight and sound to behold, and Birdman has built an impressive reputation as one of the most imaginative and original performers of the genre formerly known as indie rock. Not content to rest on his laurels, Birdman is wrapping up a most successful, prolific and affecting 2012 with his second full-length in seven months, Hands of Glory.
Billed as a companion piece to March’s superb Break It Yourself, Hands of Glory is Bird at his most reserved yet exploratory. Allowing himself the freedom of live recording and stripped down arrangements, Bird’s mastery and passion to rise to the top. From Hands of Glory’s opening track “Three White Horses”, it’s clear Bird has taken the saying “less is more” to heart. Maybe it was that tasty tomato bread we served him last summer at Celebrate Brooklyn.
For the better part of the Aughts, there was a disconnect between his ethereal performances and his indie-pop recordings. Notably on 2007’s Armchair Apocrypha and 2009’s Noble Beast, Bird’s interests seemed to lie more with crafting the perfect pop song, and less with expanding his aesthetic palate. This year, Bird re-emerged with a renewed fervor for expression and creation, turning out two very different, yet very related records that have opened his sound to previously unexplored genres, including country rock, post rock and minimalism. Suffice to say we’ve never heard Bird as comfortable as he is on Hands of Glory’s old timey standard “Railroad Bill” or on Break It Yourself’s wistful “Lusitiania”.
His newfound calmness and reserve pays dividends across all 22 tracks of the companion discs. On “Give It Away”, he allows his wandering side to directly collide with his pop leanings, as the melody blurs in and out of focus between several jam sessions. On “Fatal Shore”, Bird opts for a decidedly more airy approach, allowing the echoes of his guitar to intermittently wash over a downtrodden bass line and drum beat. On “Something Biblical”, he allows the tension to rise deliberately, until it topples over the climax: “Still we keep on dreaming of that 50-year flood, of oceans of plasma and rivers of blood.”
The final two tracks of Hands of Glory are the two best examples of Bird’s new wandering approach, and how effective and affecting it can be. First with “Orpheo”— also found on Break It Yourself, only in a bit more calculated and rowdy arrangement known as “Orpheo Looks Back”—Bird pulls out his most traditional ballad yet. Over an understated acoustic with some violin flourishes, Bird paints a stunning picture of love, loss and acceptance. He then drifts us into one of the finest closing songs in years, “Beyond the Valley of the Three White Horses.” The nine-plus minute instrumental is the ideal music companion to the afterlife. Think the “Beyond the Infinite” segment of 2001: A Space Odyssey with more tears and less psychedelics.
It’s as he said in his 2010 TED Talks appearance: “I think reckless curiosity is what the world needs now.” On Break It Yourself and Hands of Glory, it sounds as if he’s finally applied that maxim to his records, and not just his live show.
Peter Lillis is Managing Editor of Frontier Psychiatrist. In February of 2005, he waited outside Milwaukee’s Mirimar Theatre for two ours in sub-freezing weather, just for a chance to see Bird. One of the best shows he’s ever seen.