Psycho-Babiole: Andrew Bird surveys his inner landscape

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Photo: David Black

It will be interesting to see which Andrew Bird takes the stage at The Salt Shed on August 12. Bird, who was born in Lake Forest, returns for a concert in his hometown for the first time since releasing his album “Inside Problems” in June. His previous release, 2019’s “My Finest Work Yet” featured, in addition to this jaw-dropping track, a full range of politically engaged tracks. Even the album cover was in your face: it showed Bird as French revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat, famously murdered in his bath. By comparison, the Bird we meet on the cover of “Inside Problems” (and in his early videos) is almost unrecognizable: he walks through a black-and-white landscape, dressed in a suit and tie, reflecting the landscape of the new album, which is not global but cranial. Bird is, literally as metaphorically, all buttoned up.

If in 2019 Bird embodied the rebellious energy many of us felt three years into the Trump era, he now reflects a society tentatively emerging from a two-year lockdown – during which we’ve had more of “me time” than any other of us ever had.

I’m not sure that Bird is, by this reasoning, a magician to nail the Zeitgeist; he may simply be more in tune with his own responses to cultural stimuli. Admittedly, his answers seem to be more up-to-date than most; he seems to have spent the pandemic diving deep into Joan Didion (he even verifies her by name in the tune “Lone Didion”), while you and I spent it diving deep into Grubhub.

That said, the suit and tie isn’t entirely convincing. Bird never feels at home in them; in some videos the costume seems to want to go in one direction when it is clearly heading in the other. And the video for “Atomized” is actually about separation, fracturing and dismemberment. (In one shot, Bird’s body stands on one side of the table, atop which his head rests, looking carefree.) The simplified, minimalist imagery that accompanies this album manages to be at both aesthetically appealing and strangely disturbing.

But for all that, this is an Andrew Bird album, which means themes of isolation, delusion, anxiety and self-doubt are expressed in beautifully melodic tunes. and rhythmically irresistible. In fact, they’re so contagious you might suspect Bird is bidding for pop star status – and in typical Bird fashion, too (donning a black suit, stripping out his color, and singing about brokenness and ghosts) .

But I overestimate both the austerity and the complexity of the material here; in fact, Bird’s journey through his gnarled, twisting psyche is often very witty, even funny, and can unexpectedly drop you off in a place of genuine joy.

The opening track, “Underlands”, sets the tone. It begins delightfully, with a guitar riff that sounds like twinkling stars, after which a dazzled, fainting bird sings “Oh, I can’t get over this moon / And all creatures under the sun.” Soon, however, he consciously pulls himself down to earth – in fact, even lower, to the depths below – remembering that “the stars owe you nothing / Care not for your nations / Feel the slightest obligation.” But that oddly beautiful opening riff returns, first in the form of Bird’s off-mic hiss, then in a later passage where he finds, immersed in the realm of the title, the kind of beauty that awakens awe he had for the stars: “I’ve never been here before / Deep inside Earth’s molten core / Don’t need clothes or eyes to see.

This “underground” is quite clearly a metaphor for Bird’s inner landscape, and it’s pleasantly exciting to watch him learn to adapt to and even love its changing mystery for himself. It also inspires some of his finest and wittiest rhymes (“There’s a threshold / Between here and beyond / It’s across a river / You know that you have to take a raft there”).

Falling unexpectedly into ecstasy while struggling through agonies and heartbreak is one of the album’s recurring themes, and it’s realized most exhilaratingly in the title track, which is a folkloric lullaby. shimmering upside down; it’s not about going to sleep, it’s about waking up.

Molten, porous, sheathing
Breathe through the skin
Sloughing, breaching, smoothing
Exoskeleton
Don’t talk to me now I’m moulting
Don’t tell me it’s revolting
Every inch of us
A walking miracle
I was just born

Didion may be the dominant influence here, but she’s not the only one. In “The Night Before Your Birthday,” Lou Reed weaves his way through both Bird’s songwriting and his line readings (“I could count the ways I love you / But I’ve never been just once for the math / While the sky above you / Keeps on being filled with sociopaths”) There is an even more deadly channeling from Reed in “Never Fall Apart”.

But for the most part, Bird is recognizable himself: terse, witty (on “Eight,” his whistle sounds like something out of a Sergio Leone movie), stupidly gifted (his violin solo in “Faithless Ghost ” is breathtaking), and periodically seductive, taken to eloquent heights by the sheer majesty of everyday life:

Oh the naps in June
Feline rest
Lightning in the afternoon
Lizards on the tiles
Music from another room
Let’s linger just a moment

Given the tumult of the last few months, I suspect Bird’s set at The Salt Shed will include some of the politically charged songs from “My Finest Work Yet.” But the cultural moment also seems to be one of confusion and disorientation, and the tracks on “Inside Problems” speak directly to that. In fact, they lean into it, then through it, and show us a possible way forward.

By the way: Bird’s concert is one of the inaugural shows at The Salt Shed, the new concert hall opened by 16 on Center (Thalia Hall, Promontory, Empty Bottle) in the historic Morton Salt Complex at 1357 North Elston. The Shed’s summer series will take place outdoors, but indoor events are planned for 2023. It’s encouraging to see a concert venue open so (relatively) soon after virtually every club and music scene have been closed by the pandemic; and given the caliber of acts that come hot on the heels of Bird (including Lake Street Dive, Lord Huron, Courtney Barnett and Alvvays), it will be a real pleasure to support this one.

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