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Noble Beast – Andrew Bird

Fat Possum

Noble Beast, Andrew Bird’s fifth studio album, is a lush, serious, lyrical hour that lodges in the listener’s imagination like a childhood memory. It is the kind of music to be played at weddings and funerals. It is the kind of music you can sleep or make love to, cook or jump rope to, skip or daydream to, kneel down and kiss the earth to. It is the kind of music I always hoped I’d hear before I died. Bird’s effortless orchestrations, elegant voice, enthralling melodies, and learned lyrics serve each other in a symbiosis so powerful, this album earns him placement in the category of chamber music, not just chamber pop. You can map the album out visually by imagining each song as a geodesic dome with its name emblazoned on top: “Fitz and the Dizzyspells,” “Anonanimal.” Small, enclosed paths run from one to another, but each dome, each song is an environment, a self-contained unit.

Early on in the album is “Effigy,” a song which showcases three of this quadruple-threat’s talents: violin, vocals, and guitar. Beginning with haunting violin backed by loops, the tune transitions smoothly into a guitar melody before easing into Bird’s vocals. He sings, “If you come to find me affable, and build a replica for me, would the idea to you be laughable?” And later on, “Fake conversations on a non-existent telephone. Like the words of a man who’s spent a little too much time alone. When one has spent too much time alone. . .” This last phrase is answered by Bird’s violin. The effect is marvelous. The listener’s mind had been busy exploring the meaning of lyrics, but this process is slid into the more abstract task of probing a violin part. The second time through, Bird sings the melody, guiding the listener back to the lyrics, and back further to the violin introduction.

Useless Creatures, a bonus disc of instrumentals, works as an excellent coda or digestif to the album, albeit a dark, lengthy, and contemplative one. Perhaps it is more like a second act that features more of the studio as instrument, without forgetting the ambrosial setting of Noble Beast. On “The Barn Tapes,” it sounds like Bird has a piano, but when he presses a key, instead of a felt covered hammer striking a steel string, an entire symphony is cued to play an immense, dark chord. Other keys are pressed, and soon symphonies are tangled up with symphonies. The music is so grand its atonality is hardly noticeable.

After listening to both discs, a glance at the cover is due as it depicts the music better than any I have seen in a long time. Much can be said about such precise album cover art, but it is the music contained therein, music that not only has staying power, but gets more and more fascinating as time goes on, that is star of the show. Bird, who is still in his mid-30s, has already produced a body of work deserving of iconoclastic accolades. Noble Beast and Useless Creatures serve as evidence that his work has just begun.

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