ndrew Bird’s first violin at age four was a Cracker Jack box with a ruler taped to it. Once bestowed the real instrument, this prolific, long obscured folk-pop hybrid suffered the Suzuki method, which entailed several lessons of bowing to one’s instructor and conscientiously studying the anatomy of the instrument. It was not this inside-the-box methodology that Bird retained from the experience, however, but an affection for varied and long-ago musical movements, to which he has bowed respectfully for an entire career. This is reportedly the makings of a great talent, but as this magazine noted in the review for 2005’s The Mysterious Production of Eggs, it is not the makings of a genius. On this latest, his tenth album, Bird’s virtuosity catches up with his knowledge base, but it does not run spectacularly on.
What’s been both peculiar and appealing about Bird’s style is the shyness of his voice. Particularly apparent on Weather Systems and Eggs is his close, intimate near-whisper. On this release, as before, it’s in no way disconcerting to hear those poetic ramblings accompanied by whistling and pizzicato violins, which veer in and out of these pieces like small insects or animals, and just as shyly as their composer used to sing. On “Simple X,” a quirky drum machine and keyboard add robustness to the stringed status quo. His atmosphere is so often an organic one, the whistling given the effect of wind, the pizzicato enclosing us in a shadowed but safe landscape, but here is a thick layer of powerful but lazy-paced pop overtop the usual lyrical rhymes, worldly but cryptic. And here the voice exhibits a braver quality, the flattering comparison to Jeff Buckley’s warm falsetto finally warranted. But it’s Rufus Wainwright that most readily comes to mind, particularly his winding, voluptuous collaborations with David Byrne.
Listeners put off by this album’s “cover,” its first two tracks, must keep listening. There is a superior elegance drawn from a newfound, more adventurous appreciation of the violin and the addition of more instrumentalists; this elegance just happens to come mid-album. Keyboardist Martin Dosh, bassist Chris Morrissey, and multi-instrumentalist Jeremy Ylvisaker are all contributors to Bird’s full-grown compositions on an album that finally feels like an album. The winner in this sonic maturation is “Armchairs,” which climbs from one chorus to a more evolved second chorus in an epic seven minutes. Beginning with the soaring harmonic notes of the violin and a chorus of strings that mimic an orchestra tuning up, the piece turns into a heaving guitar and keyboard ballad not unlike Buckley’s “Everybody Here Wants You.” But each instrument in the mix collides at the halfway point, dissonant chords commingling with a blast of cymbals, guitar static, and powerful vocals. The tempo upgraded suddenly for the closeout, the last minute of this song is an ecstatic, achingly melodic finale such as Bird has never written.
In 2005, the Independent called Bird a potential “Tarantino of music,” but if Tarantino is merely a modern, comical reference book for martial arts cinema, Bird was doomed to be a one-man tribute band to all his idols. Instead, Apocrypha is mostly a triumph: he may be too married to the whistle-string motifs stuck up his sleeve, and occasionally songs fail to advance these endearing little themes (opener “Fiery Crash,” “Cataracts”). He has a tendency here to favor the balladic over the genre-free ingenuity of tracks like 2005’s “A Nervous Tic Motion to the Head.” But the placid verses and rocking chorus of “Plasticities,” or the undulating, wintry spectacle of “Scythian Empire,” a homely, sonorous folk nod of acoustic plucking and reverberating vocal duets, both shame the quirks of previous albums, making even the strongest tracks of yore look like youthful ditties. The composer has not relinquished the pen, nor the vision, he’s merely extended the invitation and aged with grace. The experimental, lo-fi branding of his oeuvre is gone, but the originality of his sound continues to trump the nostalgic demons in his head.