Andrew Bird (photo by Reuben Cox)
Are You Serious
Loma Vista Records
Experiencing some degree of crisis can fuel the creative juices in a positive way. As David Bromberg sang many years ago, “You gotta suffer if you wanna sing the blues.” For singer, songwriter, violinist, and whistler Andrew Bird, a rough ride on an emotional rollercoaster was the impetus for his latest album, Are You Serious.
Are You Serious comes nearly four years after Hands Of Glory, his last album of mostly original, pop-oriented material. Bird's 2014 album, Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of…, was a collection of covers of songs by the Handsome Family and last year's Echolocations: Canyon was an instrumental album—the first in a series of five instrumental field recordings.
Most of the songs on Are You Serious were hatched after a period of great joy followed by intense anxiety and worry. Following Bird's marriage to Katherine Tsina, they soon welcomed a son into their lives. But those happy occasions were quickly followed by a thyroid cancer diagnosis for Tsina. She underwent a series of surgeries and treatments which, at one point, forced Bird to take their young son, Sam, away from her for several weeks to avoid radioactive contamination. To complicate the situation further, they were forced to move out of their Greenwich Village apartment. In the aftermath of this tumultuous period, the family relocated to Los Angeles. While moving out west, and during a brief stay at his family's farm in Illinois, Bird wrote most of the new album’s lyrics.
Are You Serious is an album of classically-inspired, contemporary folk pop: a niche which has become Bird’s trademark. The collection possesses an intimate feel thanks to the production team of Bird, industry veteran Tony Berg and David Boucher. The songs come alive through an intertwining of buzzing guitars, Bird’s violins, both bowed and plucked, his remarkably deft whistling, and a clean drum sound that sits up front in the mix. The song “Truth Lies Low” is a good example of the album’s overall atmosphere.
Occasionally, songs jump out with a characteristics that sets them slightly apart from the rest of the album, notably “Capsized,” with its Bill Withers-like funky soul vibe, and “The New Saint Jude,” which possesses Afropop rhythms and structure.
Lyrically, Bird’s imagery leaves a lot to the listener’s imagination but sometimes, a song's meaning is more direct and obvious. In “Puma,” Bird directly addresses his wife’s cancer treatments and points to her courage throughout the ordeal. “Left Handed Kisses” is an internal point-and-counterpoint discussion, featuring guest vocals from Fiona Apple as Bird’s other half. “Valleys Of The Young,” the album’s heaviest tune, deals with the commitments and responsibilities that new parents face as they grow older and leave behind the carefree and devil-may-care attitudes of younger generations.
Andrew Bird continues to be one of indie-folk rock’s most preeminent bards and it’s a reputation that will only strengthen with the release of Are You Serious. Hopefully next time, Bird won’t have to deal with a serious family crisis and an emotional upheaval to find inspiration.