Though Armchair Apocrypha is Andrew Bird’s seventh album, I’ve managed to never hear him before. My first exposure to him was while my brilliant wife and I were having breakfast at our friends’ house over Thanksgiving. I liked what I heard but never did get around to picking up one of his albums.
Then a few weeks ago "Heretics" started popping up on the blogs [for that reason I'd post something else, but I'll respect Bird's wishes as indicated in this post]. Coincidentally I came across a new song from the Sea and Cake’s new album on the same day. They were a fitting pair, since both Bird and Sam Prekop share a similar ease of delivery. In fact that pairing colored my first few listens of Bird’s album once I made the purchase. Armchair Apocrypha sounds a bit like what Prekop might be up to these days if he had followed the template he set out with Shrimpboat and early Sea and Cake records—a looser, more acoustic variety of airy pop—rather than following the fork in the road that was the John McEntire–influenced electronics of The Fawn.
The Prekop comparison faded soon enough. For one, Bird’s got pipes. The first half of Bird’s album culminates in the one-two punch of “Armchairs” and “Darkmatter”—the first a mini-opus that stretches Bird’s voice into an emotional territory Prekop has never explored, the second a dynamic rocker of the sort Prekop has never attempted.
By the time I’d picked up the actual album, I’d committed most of “Heretics” to memory. It makes sense that every blog I saw referenced the same song—it’s the most immediate, with its violin hook, catchy chorus, and half-spoken/sung lyrics. The rest of the album on first listen was a bit of a mush. Bird often mumbles his lyrics, and the songs don’t always follow a simple pop structure. Small motifs pop up throughout the album, too, making the whole feel pleasurable yet not quite tangible.
We bought the album just before my wife and I headed out of town for a drive from Los Angeles to Big Sur, most of which is the winding PCH, lush mountains on the left and the Pacific Ocean crashing on the right. Tooling up the coastline on a weekend afternoon may well have been the best way to take in Armchair Apocrypha. It’s not an album you can easily process while doing other things. Not because it’s dense, but because it will pass right by you if you’re not paying attention. Best to relax, enjoy the scenery, and let Bird soundtrack your life.
In fact a Sunday drive is the perfect metaphor for many of the songs and the album as a whole. Bird, without the slightest hint of self-consciousness, winds through his songs without much noticeable effort, not always feeling the need to repeat a melody or follow a standard song structure. The opener, “Fiery Crash,” is a good example. After an intro, verse, and chorus, the song pauses for an overlay of pop-syllables (ba ba ba, etc.); then some whistling—one melody, no repetition, for just a couple bars; too short to be a solo, too singular to be a motif. Then he returns to the verse and chorus. It’s just a little detour. Many other tracks follow a similar path, weaving this way and that without worry for pop structures. As a whole the album is structured with the same ease. The first four tracks are short shots of pop, followed by the emotional peaks of “Armchairs” and “Darkmatter”—either of which (especially “Armchairs”) could function as the album’s closer, if Bird was interested in making the whole thing a steady build to a dramatic climax. But instead we climb the tallest peaks at midpoint, take a break for a short string interlude, then wind back down with the second half, all of which is just a touch slower than the first.
This structure, in the first few listens, makes the album feel longer than it actually is. Actually on one of my first intent listens my iPod malfunctioned and I thought the brief instrumental “The Supine” was the last track. I thought: short, concise album, perfectly plotted. It wasn’t until I returned from Big Sur and I listened to the album again while I took my morning ritual walk that I realized I’d missed four tracks. So I had to process the album all over again, knowing the first two-thirds much better than the last. Suddenly the album began to feel more exhausting. “Armchairs” alone swings up and down emotionally over the course of seven minutes that it really sweeps you up; by the time Bird laments “You never write, you never call / It never crossed your mind at all,” you’re drained. The remaining third of the album, quiet as it is, causes a small amount of discomfort considering how little it moves you compared to the middle of the record.
But that changes. Like the rest of the album, the songs simply take a few listens to reveal themselves to you. It wasn’t long before I found myself looking forward to the lovely chorus of “Scythian Empires,” but reticent to skip past anything lest I miss another lyric I hadn’t heard before.
And that’s the final stage: the lyrics. Outside of sitting down and reading the lyric sheet while the CD plays on my bedroom boombox—frankly something I haven’t done since high school—it takes real concentration to follow Bird’s lines. Not every chorus repeats the same lyrics, not every verse the same melody, and enunciation is not Bird’s primary concern. But after enough of those morning walks with the full album, the content of “Imitosis” starts to come into view; “Plasticities” too, and the rest. You start to see that Bird is having fun with turns of phrase and that most songs wrestle with existential issues (“The fiery crash / is just a finality / or must I explain / it’s a nod to mortality” [“Fiery Crash”], or “Do you want to know where the self resides? / Is it in your head or between your sides?” [“Darkmatter”]).
After a week of listening—in my world, that’s about five to seven spins—the album has gotten fully through the processing stage and now I’m simply enjoying it the way a great pop album deserves to be enjoyed. I’m singing along, whistling along, imitating the violin sounds and nudging my wife every time a lyric comes up that I think is especially cherce. This album was the epitome of a “grower”—but it’s officially grown. Huge thumbs up. You’ll hear me go on about this album more in the future, I’m sure.