Andrew Bird Looks to the Future and the Past on a Pair of Recent Albums

A lot of people agree that Andrew Bird is some kind of musical genius. With his rich baritone, classically trained violin playing, idiosyncratic lyrics, and frenetic, loop-driven live shows (not to mention the most sublime whistling skills in pop history), the Chicago native is one of the most strikingly unique songwriters and performers in the business.

But with genius comes the risk of alienation: Bird's music is heady and progressive in the best possible way, but it's not something you approach lightly. From his solo debut, 1996's Music of Hair, up through acclaimed recent releases like 2007's Armchair Apocrypha and 2009's Noble Beast, Bird's music has remained sophisticated and schizophrenic, touching on everything from folky chamber-pop to jazz-fusion to modern classical. Onstage, Bird and his backing band (including drummer Martin Tosh) build layers of loops that teeter on the verge of cacophony. Meanwhile, even Bird's sharpest hooks are wrapped around dizzying lyrical assaults that keep lightweights peering from a safe distance. ("It would take a calculated blow to the head/to light the eyes of all the harmless sociopaths," he sings on Noble Beast opener "Oh No.")

But over the last couple of years, Bird has been trying out a new facet of his sound—one that, while still technically dazzling and lyrically challenging, allow some breathing room. This year's Break It Yourself is his most relaxed, raw collection of tunes. After a fidgety instrumental intro, "Give It Away" settles into a simple, lovely folk strum with beaming harmonies; "Eyeoneye" is his most direct attempt at hummable pop-rock, with an explosively catchy hook and guitar-driven arrangement.

Inspired by that decluttered focus, Bird started incorporating old-time tunes into his recent set lists—all his bandmates crowded around one microphone, playing classic folk and reinterpretations of his own work to balance out the jazzy, spiraling craziness. Then they made an album, the dusty collection Hands of Glory (a companion piece to Break It Yourself), using that same technique, with loving interpretations of music by the likes of the Carter Family and the Handsome Family.

"I've always played these older tunes, no matter what I'm writing or what my own writing is doing," Bird says. "I've always played these old spirituals and country-blues things, often right before the show to kind of reconnect with what really matters in a song. With how much crazy looping we're doing onstage, and as far out as our music gets, I always have that connection to that old stuff, and that's how I started off making music in that vein. And lately, I've been bringing the band in on that—like, let's all get together before sound check or before the show and play these old tunes, just to recalibrate or remind ourselves what really matters. I just decided to start doing that in the show itself.

"So we'll do songs like ‘Give It Away' or ‘Effigy' or other tunes in the old-time style, which is done with one microphone, all acoustic. And it both recalibrates us musically onstage and does the same thing for the audience. And it creates this dynamic where you appreciate the big stuff where all of us are making loops, and you can't tell where each sound is coming from, and it's enormous. And then the next song is completely in a different way of making music."

Lately, Bird's been on "a realism kick," as he calls it. That worked its way into Break It Yourself, which was recorded with a seven-track set-up, as opposed to the heavily layered process of his previous albums. But on Hands of Glory, he took that philosophy to the next level.

"I go by my own name—that's who I am, that's my Christian name or whatever," he says. "And it's like, ‘Just don't try to sound any bigger than you are.' We made Hands of Glory based on where we were standing around one microphone. You don't even have to mix it—you mix it by where you stand."

It's a fascinating shift; on a stripped-down, countrified update of Hands of Glory's "Orpheo," you can hear Bird's instrument morph from violin to fiddle in real time. On his excellent take on the old standard "Railroad Bill," Bird's voice projects with an intensity unrivaled elsewhere in his catalog—his soaring vibrato feels piped in from a lost country radio show circling around the atmosphere.

On his fall tour, Bird's looking to blend the old and the new, pushing for a more dynamic, well-rounded experience.

"It's not like we're going for a ‘retro' thing," he says. "When you restrict yourself that much, you get something you can't get otherwise. You've taken this risk to draw the dynamic back, where it's sometimes all about adrenaline and anthemic songs, and you feel like you're losing that battle with brute force. But it's worth that risk because it's so gratifying when it does work."