Andrew Bird, ‘Noble Beast’ (Fat Possum)
Over the course of his five solo albums, Andrew Bird’s music has become a custom- tailored suit: fussy and impossible for anyone else to wear. Just try to imagine anyone else singing about “proto-Sanskrit Minoans to porto-centric Lisboans / Greek Cypriots and Hobishots / Who hang around the ports a lot,” as he does on “Tenuousness.” Imagine anyone else wanting to.
Like many of Bird’s songs, “Tenuousness” hangs more on atmosphere than melody. Whether it’s the trembling opening track, “Oh No,” or the pan-European folk of “Effigy,” his instrumental palette is reliably idiosyncratic. But the trademark Andrew Bird sound — violins, small percussive loops, isolated guitar — doesn’t create the same frothy electricity as it did on 2007’s Armchair Apocrypha. Handclaps, shakers, and whistling generate Noble Beast’s delicate warmth.
With his SAT-acing vocabulary, Bird still rocks some of the best rhymes in the game, cobbling together his own foreign language from arcane terms like radiolarians, Uralic, and plecostomus. But despite the, uh, recondite perspicacity, his songs weave simple themes — environmental causes (“Natural Disaster”) and lost youth (“Master Swarm,” “Souverian”). The war-musing “Not a Robot, but a Ghost” suggests something more triumphant, but most of the album’s protagonists never succeed. If that sounds downbeat, the songs aren’t. Bird’s phlegmatic voice has a way of softening tragedies and soothing beasts — natural, noble, or otherwise.