When you think of rock stars, you probably think of electric guitars, attitude, and debauchery. You’ve got Robert Plant, Mick Jagger, Kurt Cobain—all the usual suspects, and then some. You probably don’t think of mild-mannered men from the midwest who whistle and play the fiddle. But while Andrew Bird may not look or sound like your typical rock star, his latest album, Break it Yourself, makes a compelling argument in his favour.
It’s hard to pinpoint one style, but like Bird’s previous work, Break It Yourself combines elements of folk, rock, and baroque-inspired melodies. However you want to classify it, Bird’s music is certainly distinct. He takes simple melodies and dresses them up with a string break here and a xylophone flourish there, sometimes making him sound like a livelier Sufjan Stevens.
This album from Bird is largely more of what he’s offered before, and if you’re a fan of his previous work than you’ll probably like Break It Yourself quite a bit. However, the album is also accessible enough to appeal to new listeners. Bird has been releasing music for over 15 years, and while some musical acts with that kind of longevity begin to phone it in on later albums, Break It Yourself shows vitality and sounds like it could be an artist’s first album.
Songs like the first single, “Eyeoneye”, offer some grit that has been missing in Bird’s earlier work. His usually refined, dignified vocal style often makes it seem like he’s afraid to cause too much of a ruckus, but on this track, there’s an unexpected sense of anger. Bird sounds bitter—and maybe he’s going to finally cause a scene about it.
I would have loved to see Bird explore this side of his music a bit more on the rest of the album. The more prominent electric guitar and the crashing drums on “Eyeoneye” work beautifully with Bird’s quiet intensity. And while there are elements of a grittier sound on this album, he mostly sticks with his usual stately style. Bird is an expert at that kind of music, no doubt, but on an album that is just over an hour long, a bit more variation would have made it even stronger.
The album’s greatest strength is perhaps the building of tension and its eventual release (such as the end of the sprawling album opener, “Desperation Bleeds”). Bird’s music seems understated on the surface, but a closer listen reveals plenty of pent-up emotion that he occasionally allows to boil over.
Break It Yourself runs a little long, and begins to drag in the second half. But it’s hard to criticize Bird’s style, because he does it so well. It may seem like an unassuming, lightweight fare, but there’s a fantastically dark undercurrent running through this album. Bird just picks his moments carefully to let it come out.