Noble Beast

Face it: you probably weren’t excited about the new Andrew Bird album. It’s just not a thing one does in relation to Bird’s music. You may have been keenly interested to hear it (as I was), you may have awaited its release with deep, even forbidden desire, but the word “excited” probably didn’t really come up, did it? Bird’s just not that exciting. Which is not to say he’s bad – far from it. But you don’t line up at midnight to buy his albums at a store that’s staying open late specifically to sell them to you.

Nope. You walk in, quietly, you find Noble Beast on the shelf, and you buy it. Then you go home, not in any  particular hurry, and you maybe throw it on now or maybe you wait. You should certainly wait until you can hear the whole thing from start to finish.

So far, Noble Beast is the most accurate album title of 2009. Like all of Andrew Bird’s work, there’s a certain regal grace to the thing. And it’s a big, dense, odd, beautiful beast of a record.

Andrew Bird doesn’t really rock out, so there’s not much above midtempo on Noble Beast (Bird’s best song, “Fiery Crash,” from 2007’s pretty good Armchair Apocrypha, could be played at quite high volume in a room full of cardiac patients and not really thrust anyone’s blood pressure into the danger zone). No, the thrills provided here are of a much subtler nature. But they’re here.

“Oh No” opens and sets the tone for Noble Beast: lots of lush strings, some gentle acoustic guitar, and Andrew Bird’s stellar tenor singing about walking “arm in arm with all the harmless sociopaths”, the kind of rhythmic wordplay that Bird has perfected (and which he really shoots his load on in “Anonanimal” with some stream-of -consciousness spiel about his enemy seeing a sea anenome). Bird’s wit is sharp and dry, like Eleanor Roosevelt’s shin bones would be if you dug ’em right now, though Bird’s wit is probably less brittle.

It took me a long time to get into Noble Beast, but now, having done so, I really can’t get out. This album is beautiful the way Pitchfork mistakenly thinks Sufjan Stevens’ music is beautiful. These 14 tracks are hyper-intelligently composed but never self-indulgent, absolutely saturated with complex melodies and played with an economy of instrumentation that the geography-crazed Mr. Stevens should probably look into. You may only hear an electric guitar for a few bars on a song, but it comes in, does its job, then clocks out and goes home. On Noble Beast, Bird has composed a pop masterwork; “Masterswarm” and the superb “Anonanimal” have tangible movements to them, making them pop songs composed like classical suites. It’s a feat that would seem pretentious in the hands of more assuming performers (I know I’ve bagged on Sufjan Stevens a lot in this review, but I’m going to continue to do so. His compositions are bloated. I don’t give a shit about a 23 track album where some tracks are 30 seconds of glockenspiel or whatever. Write a fucking song.), but it’s hard to think of a less assuming performer than Andrew Bird.

Because the songs are so tightly composed, they’re not what you’d call radio-friendly. If you need a hook in the first 30 seconds, you might not like Noble Beast, but if you have some patience, melodies like the chorus of  “Not a Robot, But a Ghost” will grab you from behind, spin you around, and plant a big ol’ kiss on your psyche. Am I gushing over this album? Maybe, but maybe Noble Beast is as good as I say it is. In the past, and with the exception of The Mysterious Production of Eggs, I’ve gotten tired/bored about halfway through Andrew Bird albums. I fully expected that with Noble Beast as well. What I did not expect was that, within two rotations in the car, I would find myself coming back to Noble Beast again and again, patiently awaiting the soft shower of beauty it is all too willing to rain upon me. If Mysterious Production of Eggs was Bird’s accessible, poppy album, Noble Beast is his coming-out as a music nerd’s music nerd. You don’t have to share my love of music theory to enjoy Noble Beast, but my love of theory and composition does add an extra dollop of whipped cream to the hot fudge sundae that is this album.

Call it the Boxer Effect. When that album came out in the early part of 2007, I heard “Fake Empire” and had an orgasm. But I didn’t really get into the rest of the album until much later, when songs like “Mistaken for Strangers” and “Apartment Story” crept into my skull while I wasn’t looking. Suddenly, Boxer was my favorite album of the year and The National became one of my favorite bands. Andrew Bird has sped up the Boxer Effect exponentially with Noble Beast. I’ve had this album for one week as of this writing and I’m going through it for possibly the 12th time.  And each time, I find new melodic treasures, so much so that I wonder now if I have suddenly understood Andrew Bird in an entirely new light. Perhaps I can go back and listen to the second half of Armchair Apocrypha without nodding off. Perhaps not.

If you’ve read other reviews of Noble Beast and find this one to be the most effusive, I can only hope that it is. Andrew Bird has completely won me over with this album, literally startled me with its beauty. If you’ve been reading Bollocks! regularly over the last year, 1) thanks! and 2) you might realize that I don’t easily go gooey over albums that aren’t by Tom Waits, The Clash, or The Hold Steady, and that might mean Noble Beast is worth some investigation on your part. That said, this album, like all Andrew Bird’s albums, will try the patience of a lot of listeners who might well write to me and tell me I’m full of shit (I have dear friends who will probably hate this album), but if you’re willing to bear with it for a while, it will pay off handsomely.

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