Andrew Bird’s songwriting approach is seemingly paradoxical, at once highly improvisational and long-simmering, with material sometimes taking years to finally gel together. The results are familiar to anyone who’s followed his string of breezily baroque albums over the last decade, full of virtuosic and engaging inter-weavings of melodies and loops spun from violin, whistling, guitar, and Bird’s warbling tenor. While his songs are elegantly crafted and artfully arranged, he’s careful not to lose the sense that music is about creating a space to explore, to wander through and maybe even get lost in. That’s certainly the case with his sixth solo album, Break It Yourself.
Working with his longtime, improv-friendly backing band of Martin Dosh, Jeremy Ylvisaker, and Mike Lewis, Bird recorded Break It Yourself in a loose-knit weeklong session at his barn outside of Chicago, capturing the performances largely live. The approach pays dividends in creating an off-the-cuff atmosphere for songs that have probably been honed and re-imagined frequently, often making Break It Yourself feel as if it’s being created on the spot.
It’s extraordinarily intimate at times, especially given the overarching theme of heartbreak and broken connections that suffuses the album. Which is not to say that Break It Yourself is ever nakedly and painfully personal. That is simply not Bird’s style, and even when his lyrics veer toward the confessional, they’re couched inside oblique and ambivalently calm language. “Lazy Projector” spins out a metaphor on the untrustworthiness of memory as the deliberately crafted fiction of a movie, edited and recast to smooth out the sharp edges of truth, before finally throwing in a direct statement: “I can’t see the sense in us breaking up at all.” From such a normally reserved songwriter, the line explodes like a depth charge.
On “Lusitania,” Bird turns to maritime war history—the ship sinkings that helped launch the U.S. into two wars—for another metaphor on a destroyed relationship, but shifts both mood and metaphor with a gently lilting guest vocal from St. Vincent’s Annie Clark nicely underplaying a verse about the electricity of a new connection. It’s indicative of a beautifully free-flowing set of tunes that soar and waft like a flock of starlings, building to a quietly epic mood that is too ruminative and introspective to suffer from grandiosity.