“This is all nonfiction,” declares Andrew Bird during the question-markless title tune of his bold new album, Are You Serious. This time around, the veteran singer-songwriter could be fighting a battle between artifice and truth. But can both sides win?
“I’m still myself,” says Bird, on the line from Dublin, Ireland, just one stop on his long, multinational tour. “There are certain words and images I’m drawn to, and they can be pretty obscure, I guess. But I definitely had a desire to communicate something more specific here, which is unusual for me. I normally work my way from sound to sense.”
The instantly catchy songs manage to be spare and luxurious at the same time, redolent of wry futurism and the belle époque. Sometimes you can hear Bird’s conservatory training, especially when his violin takes over, and some swinging impulses recall his early tenure in the Squirrel Nut Zippers. But this is by far his rockiest offering to date.
Dig the heavily filtered guitar sounds of “Truth Lies Low” and the bluesy imprecations of the tempo-shifting “Left Handed Kisses”, a duet with Fiona Apple. Two sanctified numbers, “Saints Preservus” and “The New Saint Jude”, have the pop clarity of Paul Simon. As usual, Bird’s lyrics contain scientific metaphors, from the particles of “Puma” (“she was radioactive for seven days”) to the neurotransmitters of “Chemical Switches” (“all it takes is a spark”).
“I don’t know why,” he observes, “but I’m just drawn to themes that haven’t been considered as much as they maybe should be—things that talk about what we’re made of.”
In the 2011 documentary Fever Year, the heavily sweating tour warrior, sick at the time, fretted about “turning into a different animal” on-stage. But that was before he met elegant fashion designer Katherine Tsina, and they had a child and moved from the Chicago area, where he grew up, to sunny Los Angeles. He may sing that he still feels like a “stranger in a land that’s anything but strange”, but now he’s more happily whistling in the dark.
“I’ve always preferred the studio; for people who have trouble interacting with large groups of people, or even just other humans, it’s the perfect way out,” he says. “But I can honestly say I’ve never felt more comfortable performing. There’s something about making a real connection with a living, breathing audience. Maybe it’s just a thing of the moment, but maybe not. It could be an infinite well.”
This philosophical bent can make a long-time Andrew Bird fan wonder if he has entered a period of reevaluation. But almost exactly 20 years into his slowly but steadily building career, he simply hasn’t had enough time to look back.
“I only hear my older music by accident,” the 42-year-old admits. “But when I do, I’m always surprised that my memory of it is so different from how it really sounds. Some of the old stuff sounds really reckless and young.”
Does that mean the new stuff is settled and old?
“No, not at all. It’s just that with the early things I can hear the excitement overtaking the music at times—mostly by cramming so many ideas into a single tune. There’s an impatience that’s probably normal at 22. I wouldn’t say that I’m settled now; there are just different things I value these days.”
Andrew Bird performs at the Orpheum on Saturday (May 21).