For each of the past five years, I've happened to have not one, but two favorite albums. Last year, Brian Wilson's Smile and The Arcade Fire's Funeral paced the field; before that, it was White Blood Cells and Love and Theft (2001), Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (2002), and Chutes Too Narrow and Greetings from Michigan: The Great Lakes State (2003). In each year, both albums shared certain preoccupations and musical ancestry, but took slightly (or widely) different approaches or attitudes towards them. They somehow both encapsulated the zeitgeist and escaped it.
If there's going to be a number 2 in 2005, it has its work cut out for it. I am compelled to declare that Andrew Bird's The Mysterious Production of Eggs is the best new album I've heard -- well, at least since Smile, which had the benefit of already being one of the greatest albums of all time almost forty years before its release. Mysterious Production can certainly go blow for blow with any of the earlier albums I've named and more besides. I've been listening to it virtually non-stop since early March and my delight has been renewed with each listen.
Bird, a virtuoso violinist and whistler, recorded the album with the help of his outstanding percussionist and his own generously layered but fresh-sounding strings, guitars, and vocals. I first saw Bird last year opening for The Magnetic Fields here in Philly. I was stunned: he performed his entire set accompanied only by his own violin, with arrangements built part-by-part in multiple loops controlled by an array of foot pedals. With that foundation, he added violin solos, acoustic and electric guitar, bells, and his stunning whistling. It's difficult to describe the power of Bird's whistling, other than it sounds simultaneously wholly organic and incapable of being produced by a human being. It's best heard live, or on his 2003 album Weather Systems.
The Mysterious Production of Eggs sounds like the Beatles album that may have been recorded if the Fab Four had found a way not only to balance their egos but morph into a single George Martin-guided, experimental-symphonic-pop troubadour. USA Today calls it "Beck meets Itzhak Perelman," but the album's most oddly recognizable musical signatures conjure the more adventursome moments from Revolver and Abbey Road, via the detour of Van Morrison's Astral Weeks, Nick Drake's Bryter Layter, and Paul Simon of Graceland and elsewhere. If you're looking for more recent touchstones, it might suggest Jeff Buckley's Grace, Rufus Wainwright's Poses, Sondre Lerche's Two Way Monologue, and Bird's own beautiful but more subdued earlier albums.
I don't know much about what pop radio plays these days; if Bird's beautiful music hasn't fully taken it over by now, radio has officially reached its pinnacle of perversity. "Fake Palindromes" is the millenium's first genuinely brilliant three-minute single; its S&M-meets-fairy-tale message appears to be "Monsters will talk, monsters will walk the earth." This message is driven home by rapid-fire, then aching delivery, soaring guitars, and triumphant strings.
For the most of the album, though, the songs have a free-form or multiple-movement structure. Bird often introduces melodies, lyric refrains, or chord changes only to abandon them a few moments later. This all feels smooth and organic, however -- none of the glitch-happy rock-opera pretensions of last year's Blueberry Boat (which I liked). Again, it's much closer to the sort of thing you'd expect from The Beatles, Simon or Morrison. It still retains a potent dynamism: songs go from loud to soft, gentle to brutal and back again.
More often, one kind of change helps to mask another. Bird's Simonesque croon and musical optimism generally mask his lyrical violence: just as Simon buried his bitter divorce in the feel-good world music of Graceland, Bird manages to ruminate on nuclear holocaust, S&M, and the machinations of evil men in the context of a propulsive, folky pop album. If it were Thom Yorke singing "We'll give you a complex and we'll give you a name," or "I'm gonna drill a tiny hole into your head," Mysterious Production would sound a lot darker; with Bird's Simon-meets-Buckley-meets-Wainwright singing and songwriting in the spotlight, the apocalyptic meditations feel warm and even personal without lapsing into preciousness.
The other lyrical comparisons one could make would be to The Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne, or late-70s David Byrne. In particular, Bird's managed to resurrect a narrative staple of Byrne's: the false apocalypse. If Bird shares Yorke's dystopic preoccupations, he also shares Byrne's (and Simon's) ability to put a smiling and quotidian, if ironic, face on it. If one were to read Mysterious Production of Eggs as a concept album, it would tell a story of the aftermath of nuclear war, conceived with repurposed imagery of the Christian endtimes
Consider "Sovay"'s dulcet depiction of bubble-headed warmongering:
All those Don Quixotes and their B-17's /... /The martial theme returns on the aptly titled "MX Missile Proof," with its "legionnaires marching 2 by 4 / And they're marching off to war." "A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left" follows, beginning:
they're acting on vagaries /
With their violent proclivities /
And they're playing 'Ride of the Valkyries.'
We had survived /Similarly, "Masterfade" is addressed to a character who looks "up at the sky, and all you see are zeroes and ones," and asks, "What's the matter / If we're all matter / What's the matter if we're matter when we die?"
To turn on the History channel /
And ask our esteemed panel /
Why we are alive /
And here's what they replied /
You're what happens when two substances collide /
And by all accounts you really should have died.
"Opposite Day" is probably the song that most clearly references some kind of apocalyptic moment:
I got up this morning /But "Opposite Day" also introduces a new wrinkle: the possibility of a genuinely apocalyptic, i.e., a holy day of judgment. The second verse begins:
With the sunlight in my eyes /
And there was no warning /
As it took me by surprise /
And it hit me like an act of God /
And caused my alarm /
That I had not become a cephalopod /
I still had legs and arms... /
Today was supposed to be the day /
That molecules decide to change their form /
Laws of physics lose their sway...
Those that can't quite function/Another way of saying the last shall be first, and the first shall be last; the original opposite day. Bird hints at this interpretation at the end of the song, when the song structure changes into an old jazz number, and he jokes:
In society at large /
They're going to wake up on this morning /
And find that they're in charge /
While those who are set up for /
Who are really doing quite well /
They're going to wake up in institutions /
Prisons or in hell.
Well if you think there's something else /While "Opposite Day"is menacing stuff, I draw great comfort from "Tables and Chairs," the album's penultimate track. "Tables and Chairs" fits beautifully into the anticlimactic apocalypse tradition established by "Graceland" and Talking Heads' "Nothing but Flowers." Bird admonishes us (with an allusion to Byrne's "Air"),
Well, you're right, there is/
There's something else /
But if you think I'm going to tell you /
Think again /
Why should I even bother telling you what there is/ ... /
I'm under explicit orders to dare not speak its name.
Don't you worry /
About the atmosphere /
Or any /
Sudden pressure change /
Because I know /
That it's starting /
To get warm in here /
And things are /
Starting to get strange.
Bad news again. But it's all resolved and lovingly accepted in the wonderful bridge, when the rhythm rebuilds, and Bird beautifully intones:Like Radiohead, like The Beatles, Bird has given us a glimpse at the future of music -- simultaneously traditional and adventurous -- which is at the same time a glimpse at the future itself. The Mysterious Production of Eggs transcends both the paranoia and the easy solutions of our own present through a complete yet intimate and stunningly imaginative vision of the world. I don't know if Bird is a closet Christian, a war hawk or dove, or just churning out smart-sounding nonsense. None of this generation's political, futurist, or religious songwriters -- not Thom Yorke, nor Wayne Coyne, Win Butler, Ben Gibbard, Conor Oberst, Sufjan Stevens, Devendra Banhart, or Issak Brock -- are writing music with the skill, assurance, energy, and ambition that Bird displays on this album. It makes me deliriously happy to see it.
I know we're going to meet someday /
In the crumbling financial institutions of this land /
There'll be tables and chairs, /
There'll be pony rides and dancing bears /
There'll even be a band /
'Cause listen, after the fall /
There'll be no more countries /
No currencies at all /
We're going to live off our wits /
Gonna throw away survival kits... /
And there will be snacks, there will /
There will be snacks, there will... be /
There will be snacks.