Andrew Bird: hope, despair, and whimsy
Technology, politics, creation, outer space, childhood, science, fear, media, evolution, the end of the world—the music of Andrew Bird is not typical pop fare superficially obsessing with romantic relationships. Instead, with his tongue in cheek, the multi-instrumentalist Bird mines other kinds of relationships to unearth his eerie signature elements. He is deeply aware of the long-term psychological effects of everything, from playground politics to sociopolitical structures, and this awareness manifests itself in a lyrical cynicism. Bird, however, doesn't channel this cynicism into armchair punditry. Instead he goes into his studio and plays around.
Bird whistles. He also sings and plays violin, guitar and glockenspiel, but he's recognized as an unusually talented whistler. This characteristically results in winsome music that often comes off sounding remarkably like the soundtrack for a retro science fiction film but, still, honours his hefty subject matter. Following five full-length albums of paradoxical pleasures, his most recent release, Armchair Apocrypha, is no exception.
A major theme running through Armchair Apocrypha is the failure of modern systems to answer satisfactorily life's biggest questions and to fulfill basic human needs. In the song "Plasticities," Bird explores the tendency of modernity and the democratic state to control everything from aging to artistic expression that leads to self-destruction by popular demand. Another of Bird's pet subjects is the failure of science to explain life's mysteries, both good and painful. In "Imitosis," this failure extends even to the simplest childhood realities: "Why do some show no mercy while others are painfully shy? Tell me doctor can you quantify the reason why?" Science can only reach the conclusion that "we're all basically alone"—the result of cell division. Not only science, democracy, and modernity have failed us. Bird calls religion, technology, media, and each and every person to own responsibility for our "own personal Waterloo."
Armchair Apocrypha reaches its pit of despair in the dense mourning of "Cataracts." Bird is not playing anymore with whistling and glockenspiels. He's lamenting cultural domination in the form of imperialism:
when our mouths are filled with uninvited tongues of others
and the strays are pining for their unrequited mothers
milk that sours is promptly spat
light will fill our eyes like cats
and they shall enter from the back
with spears and scepters and squirming sacks
scribes and tangles between their ears
faceless scrumbled charcoal smears
Although he alludes to "less civilized" periods of history, more contemporary references are never far behind. According to Bird, we tell the same stories over and over again, with minor variations. Nature itself feels the pain. Death is everywhere—in our hair, in the food we eat.
However, dawn will break this dark night, for the cyclical stories we tell of destruction and domination are marked by an unnamable force that will not permit ultimate despair. In Bird's world, agents of this force recognize that we are all in the middle of a very real and complex battle for precious territory. In this magnificent, terrible enterprise, everything is significant: from what we have for breakfast to what we believe about heaven and hell.
Bird expresses this conviction musically by following the anguish of "Cataracts" with the light and rhythmic "Scythian Empires." The Scythian empire lasted nearly two millennia and spanned large parts of what is currently Ukraine, Russia, the Middle East, and eastern Europe. Yet it is hardly remembered today outside of academia. As with many historical references, Bird highlights Scythia in an attempt to convict his culture about the current state of affairs.
At first listen, this song is a flippant tribute to the devastation of a culture. But closer examination warrants our comparing the song's place in the album to the place of Ash Wednesday in the liturgical calendar—a day on which liturgical Christians acknowledge that "from dust we were created, to dust we shall return"—the beginning of giving the self over to new life in eternal terms. If, indeed, Bird despairs at the current state of political affairs in the world, particularly concerning the American empire, his expression of hope takes on the form of Psalm 90: "For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night . . . So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom." If death and oppression are the bad news, the good news Bird offers is to put those things in long-term perspective: there is a future beyond despair.
Bird is unlikely to express these convictions in confessional terms, so the listener must be vigilant for clues, down to the tiniest detail, including palindromes—a passion of Bird's that emerged in his 2005 release, The Mysterious Production of Eggs. Palindromes are words or phrases spelled the same backward and forward. "Racecar" is the standard example. "Egad, a base tone denotes a bad age" is one popularized by the playful rockers They Might Be Giants. Bird's affinity for palindromes may be the natural inclination of a quirky musician who roots around in language and sound for a living, or it may offer a clue as to his ability to convict his culture without plunging into darkness.
Try as we might to find a comfortable resting place between hope and despair, the only thing we ever with achieve in that effort is a lukewarm mediocrity and the prospect of God's spitting us out of His mouth. Bird is "all for moderation but sometimes it seems moderation itself can be a kind of extreme."
What happens when we lurch back and forth between extremes, honouring the paradoxical, side-by-side existence of devastating suffering and ridiculous joy? The soundtrack to that journey might sound a little like Andrew Bird's.