Andrew Bird’s career has been characterized by its prolific nature. Though it’s been four years since the songwriter released a full-length of original material, it’s not like he’s been dormant since. He released and toured behind a covers album of songs by The Handsome Family, began an instrumental series by recording in Utah canyons, and settled into his new Los Angeles locale by becoming a fixture of Largo At The Coronet, a venue known for regular appearances by the likes of Jon Brion, Aimee Mann, John C. Reilly, and Fiona Apple.
Beyond becoming part of a community, Bird is now a family man, married with a son, in a life that the singer admits is making his music more personal than ever. The resulting album, Are You Serious, has Bird frightened to share his new music, possibly explaining why he’s been so eager to sink his teeth into anything but his own lyrical compositions over the last few years.
Having a lot to say is a good thing for Bird. “Valley Of The Young” confronts fatherhood straight on, noting “our hearts are constantly breaking” before asking if it is “selfish or is it brave?” Absent is the science and technology jargon that’s usually a tentpole of his musical discussions. It’s refreshing not only that Bird express himself directly, but also that he has something profound to share. When, on “The New St. Jude,” he announces “a mighty revelation,” claiming “everyone’s a disappointment and everyone’s a failure,” it’s an observation that manages to live up to its own hype.
Familiar Bird references to particles and chemicals return on tracks “Puma” and “Chemical Switches” respectively, grounding the record in a bit of familiarity. The former song showcases his ability to blend his violin looping into a bona fide rocker, while the latter finds his trademark whistling working both as a gentle prelude and harmonizing tool. Bird playing to his strengths works because they are definitively his own.
Unfortunately, the highlights here are exceptions rather than the rule. “Capsized” tries its hand at muscular blues, a look that doesn’t suit a musician more capable of delicacy. His much-anticipated duet with Apple, “Left Handed Kisses,” is too loose of a collaboration to pan out beyond an intriguing concept. And cuts like “Truth Lies Low” and “Saints Preservus” amount to little more than the groove they ride in on, ultimately slight and rudderless.
And that’s the lasting impression of the album: slight. Where Bird is lyrically taking risks, he’s not bolstering them with melodies or arrangements that would make the move stand out. For an artist that prides himself on his experimental diversions, be it his Gezelligheid holiday concerts or his Sonic Arboretum museum installations, his pop music compositions seem stuck in gear. His claim that everyone is a disappointment might be aimed toward himself.