Album of the Week: Andrew Bird’s ‘Break It Yourself’: Natural Science

Andrew Bird’s albums have always been growers. They take time to process and unlock. To approach his albums once is not enough. They require repeated visits to discover their subtle hooks, their gorgeous mellifluence. Break It Yourself (2012) is no different. While it may feel light, even breezy at times, it most definitely has something to offer, if you’re willing to give yourself over to it. That may be a lot to ask of a casual listener, but the rule applicative to whiskey and long-distance relationships holds true here: your patience is rewarded.

Recorded in Bird’s rural Illinois barn, Break It Yourself is much rougher than his previous efforts. It’s messier. The rustic setting has definitely bled into the production. The vocals sometimes fall to the back of the mix. Violins may bury the guitars. Crickets and other creatures add their voices. But the album doesn’t feel cluttered, just naturalistic. Bird’s songs flourish like Rococo gardens, growing in whatever directions they choose.

Bird has never been one to pray at the foot of traditional, rigid song structures. Some songs on Break It Yourself  begin with seemingly unrelated thematic passages. They’re not so much intros as they are pieces to a song that’s been deconstructed across the album (See: the first 44 seconds of “Desperations Breeds” and the first 34 seconds of “Lazy Projector” and scattered in the background of “Hole in the Ocean Floor”). Others don’t even bother with discrete choruses at all.

Bird’s project has been one of living songcraft. These songs want to move and change even on the record itself. Given his pension for reconstructing his songs on the fly during live shows, it’s no surprise these songs meander so. This is the first studio album that captures the fluid nature of his live performance, all the way down to the sonic flourishes that pop up between songs like wild flowers.

Lyrically, Break It Yourself finds Bird at his most accessible. The classic Bird subject matter still appears. History, science, charts, and graphs all weave in and out of the songs, and the apocalyptic imagery is there, though it inhabits the horizon, rather than the album’s centerpiece. Death is still fun, so you can breathe a sigh of relief. And disaster is all the more beautiful with the help of St. Vincent’s Annie Clark singing on “Lusitania” (a perfect collaboration, if there ever was one).

While the staples are there, Bird does break new ground. The most uncharacteristic is the pervasiveness of love in these songs. Love was never a subject broached on Andrew Bird’s earlier efforts—if it was addressed, it was often oblique and veiled in wordplay. Not so this time. “Lazy Projector,” which recounts the collapse and the futile attempt to reconstitute a relationship, crescendos on this line, perhaps the least obtuse line Bird has ever sang: “I can’t see the sense in us breaking up at all.”

Even with that line, the rest of the song opens itself up for interpretation. Ostensibly it’s about the wayward reliability of memory: “It’s all in the hands of a lazy projector / That forgetting, embellishing, lying machine.” Our memories are plasticine in the hands of our inner children at play, moving and bending to what suits us, whether it feels good or not. The same can be said of Bird on this album. As you listen, the songs are never quite what you remember, or what you expect, but they’re comforting nonetheless.

Notable tracks: “Lazy Projector,” “Near Death Experience Experience,” “Lusitania,” “Sifters”

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