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ANDREW BIRD GETS (MORE AND LESS) SERIOUS


There’s a line which sticks out on Andrew Bird’s new album, Are You Serious.

It plays on several levels – much like the classically trained violinist who once spent several years in the frenetic blues/gypsy swing band Squirrel Nut Zippers; the seemingly awkward stage presence who can unleash a torrent of words in song; the indie singer/songwriter with a gift for melodies, who will break into a whistle if the mood takes him.

The line is “Do the walk of shame from the comfort of your home” which leaves itself open to various interpretations on an album overtly about middle life, children and responsibility.

There’s the general: some of us don’t need to face the world to feel embarrassed and inadequate as we realise we are now ensconced in a world we never thought we would fit in.

And there’s the specific: a young woman at home but no longer safe thanks to social media’s ability to bring the vile to her door.

“It’s a more readily available, at any moment, type of shame,” says Bird of the bullied-at-home. “And there is that attraction, the co-dependence between the lonely person seeking some contact and the angry person.

“I was thinking a lot on this record about that meeting your enemies for some sustenance. How we play into each other’s arms or games.”

It isn’t easy to say who the enemy is each time either, especially if you’re someone who has found yourself where you least expected to end up.

Someone like Bird realising he’s not a visitor to pop music but in fact a working musician with a 20-year career, a long-term partner and, since his last album, a child.

That “adult” perspective seems very strong on Are You Serious, an almost mainstream rock pop album made with jazz musicians.

“A friend of mine, a novelist, said ‘oh this is Andrew Bird’s grows up record’, and I was like don’t say that, because that’s okay if you’re a novelist but that’s not okay if you’re a musician,” Bird says, adding only semi-jokingly that “You can lose a whole swathe of potential listeners if you go out with that.”

Of course that begs the question the 43-year-old Bird had not been serious and grown up before. While he has a strain of humour – more evident live than on record - it’s fair to say that when he first appeared as a solo act in 2003, Bird already looked and sounded like a serious grown man.

“There was time when I was younger when I was even more serious and adult than I am now,” he says. “The shift in life that happened in the course of writing this record, rather than leading to a sense of complacency, which I think people assume, it led to a sense of urgency and impatience with my former self.

“You look at yourself before all this stuff happened to you and you’re like, oh man, what was I doing? I was just drifting and wallowing in my own internal machinations and what a luxury that was.”

A partner and a child has made him happy, don’t get him wrong, but the exposure to new kinds of vulnerabilities floored him, as he explains in another song from the album, Valleys Of The Young, which is directed at younger versions of himself.

“What I didn’t realise before I embarked on a new phase in life was how intense and heartbreaking and devastating it was. So I’m like, wow you thought you really had a romantic life in your 20s? Just wait, it’s not what you think,” Bird says.

“I wanted this record to be visceral and affecting and I wanted the lines to land, hard. Reach out and grab the listener by the lapels and say look, I’ve got something to tell you. Whereas before I was doing a similar thing that I’m doing now but with a different perspective: I don’t have the same kind of patience for myself that I did.”

It’s a bit like the difference between writing elliptical, fascinating lyrics and enjoying the ambiguity – which was one of his techniques – and saying something directly and without too much shading of meaning so people understand him immediately.

As Bird explains “I wrote the kind of music that I appreciated myself, which was sort of ambiguous. I liked that”, but then he discovered a long, rambling song by the late Texan songwriter Townes Van Zandt about a relationship failing, called For The Sake Of The Song.

“I thought, that sounds like a cliché ‘maybe she has to sing for the sake of the song’, But then I heard it again [and], he’s singing about my life, or some aspect of my life,” Bird says. “This is not the way I have ever listened to a song.”

Up until then Bird had approached lyrics more for sounds and tone and “never really cared what they were saying”. But now here he found himself thinking “is this how most people listen to music: waiting for that songwriter to connect with something in their everyday life?”

The answer is Are You Serious.

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