In a January 2nd New York Times piece, writer Jonathan Mahler put forth the theory that 2009 would be a breakout year for Andrew Bird, who’s about to release his fifth solo album, Noble Beast. He cites a stronger promotional push from Bird’s label, Fat Possum Records, and a continued willingness on Bird’s part to stay out on the road for absurdly long stretches.
And Mahler just might be right. If you were to play almost any of the 14 songs on the new record for a newcomer, it seems likely that they would be smitten. Bird’s voice is lovely, his command of classical instrumentation is impressive, and his lyrics are perplexing but, if nothing else, consistently thought-provoking. And he’s a handsome son of a bitch, too, which doesn’t exactly hurt his chances for elaborate glossy photo spreads. Also, he whistles a lot.
But Noble Beast will actually be a substantial disappointment for those who’ve been following Bird’s career for any period of time, and it doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to assume that, taken as a whole, even those who are coming to him for the first time might find their initial enthusiasm fading fast by the record’s end, if they even get that far — because it turns out it’s the most boring record he’s ever made, by a long shot.
Bird has always been at his best when he uses more traditional rock arrangements and structures to offset his own considerably quirky tendencies — and vice versa, really. As a point of reference, look to “Fake Palindromes” from 2005’s The Mysterious Production of Eggs, a song that features an unstoppable, swirling violin hook and a rousing crescendo that’s as impressive as any in recent pop music. On Noble Beast, though, there’s nothing of the sort. Instead, we get a surfeit of songs that find Bird settling into a far more relaxed, albeit pleasantly genteel, sound.
There’s almost no dynamic range to speak of, with most tracks merely alternating between relaxed and soothing and slightly more relaxed and soothing. It’s a tone that isn’t particularly objectionable, of course, especially given how nicely Bird’s voice lends itself to it. But when each song strikes the same chord, and when those songs average nearly five minutes in length, and when there are a whopping 14 of them, you’ve got a perfect recipe for a dreadfully tedious record, with each passing moment of unabashed sameness serving as a reminder of the missed opportunities to deliver on the promise of a more exciting past.
Much of Noble Beast would be forgivable, or even enjoyable despite its flatness, if it weren’t for the record’s biggest flaw — for the first time in Bird’s career, the melodies just aren’t there. And when that’s the case, it doesn’t matter if you’re singing, whistling, playing the violin or somehow doing all those things at once. Melody, not atmosphere, is king. Bird used to know that, and when he figures it out again, maybe he’ll be deserving of the breakout year that’s supposedly in store for him.