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Andrew Bird - Armchair Apochrypha

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Artist: Andrew Bird

Album: Armchair Apochrypha

Label: Fat Possum

Review date: Apr. 27, 2007

Armchair Apocrypha is Andrew Bird’s seventh album under his own name. True to its title, the album is a low-key, peripatetic affair, one that bears its domestic excellence with well-earned confidence. Even at its most grandiose (“Dark Matter,” “Plasticities”), this collection is only dimly legible. Bird’s voice (a stubbly, winsome thing that compares favorably to Jeff Buckley’s more endearing traits), violin and whistling are Armchair Apocrypha’s constants, but despite its consistent tone, “Scythian Empires’” exotic skiffle and the slinky wit of “Imitosis” approach the listener in almost diametrically opposed ways. While Bird’s boyfriend-in-the-morning vocal delivery is a major locus of attention, his lyrics are uniquely effective at propelling compositions that occasionally get mired in their own detail. The lines that open album centerpiece “Armchairs” set the album’s tone: “I dreamed you were a cosmonaut / of the space between our chairs / and I was a cartographer / of the tangles in your hair.” Fittingly, Bird’s tone is deceptively domestic, making sense only inasmuch as it seems to make sense. Album opener “Fiery Crash” requires several listens before one realizes that attempting to make sense of the lyrics is much like trying to remember details from a dream, grasping and losing the memory in equal measure. Bird’s intelligence – and obvious delight in the associations that words seem to make on their own – often places his lyrics in the precocious high-school poet camp, as in the following lines from “Cataracts”: “When our mouths are filled with the uninvited tongues of others / and the strays are pining for their unrequited mothers / milk that sours is promptly spat / light will fill our eyes like cats.”

Like the Vintage International trade paperbacks its design gently apes, the music and text throughout the album are both sophisticated and populist. While it's clear Bird feels no need to revolutionize the musical language he employs, it's difficult to not be seduced and baffled when he strikes a balance between detail and scope. It would be a stretch to call any of these songs baroque; despite the central role played by Bird's (plucked as often as bowed) violin, his compositional style is one that tends to let details percolate in the thick margins of his songs, which only rarely coalesce into the kind of fearsomely coherent, top-heavy edifices that are The Arcade Fire's stock-in-trade. “Dark Matter” and “Plasticities” skirt closest to this territory, with the latter featuring a rabble-rousing chorus — that is, if college theatre kids can be considered ‘rabble.’ The remainder of the album has the still, breathless feel of watching dust motes in a shard of sunlight: there’s a dizzying range of elements one can focus on, and a song can change drastically depending on what one hones in on.

“Armchairs” is by far the album’s most overtly ambitious track. Over the length of seven minutes, it sets the stakes for the whole album. Opening with a looped-violin swell that nods in the direction of Arvo Part’s Summa before being stretched out over some carefully-laid-down guitar and throaty piano, the song’s loose but assured construction feels like the space Bird mentions in the lyrics: dark, empty, familiar, and unknowable.

By Brandon Bussolini

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