Although perhaps overshadowed by Animal Collective's release on the same day next week, Andrew Bird's upcoming album, Noble Beast, has built up a sizable amount of hype, especially with the album streaming over at NPR and leaking several days later. Even before that, Bird has been anything but shy about showing off his new material, especially live. When I saw him perform this past summer, half his concert was something of an album preview. I enjoy the idea of songs practiced live, then re-imagined or re-written before finally settling in their final recorded state, and I've been interested to see if that concept worked to Bird's advantage here.
Noble Beast is a lighter, airier record than 2007's Armchair Apocrypha, which was something like Andrew Bird's rock album (relatively speaking, of course). In a recent interview, Bird stated that the recording process for these songs started with the vocals first, and the album certainly reflects that. He still uses his virtuoso violin playing and otherworldly whistle to great effect, but the other instrumental flourishes seem more designed to give his unique tenor voice and abstract musical poetry the spotlight, and as a result, Noble Beast features the strongest vocal performances of his career.
Bird spends much of the album subtly expands his style and experimenting with new genres. "Masterswarm" begins with a delicate violin/vocal introduction before shifting into a smooth, samba rhythm with light percussion that puts the vocals front and center. It's one of several lengthy tracks on Noble Beast (nearly seven minutes) that make up the 54 minute run time, which occasionally seems overlong but is filled with generally strong material and isn't much of an issue. Still, the tendency for some will be to skip through to find the more upbeat and immediate tracks, but a little restraint will be richly rewarded.
Elsewhere, Bird experiments with noisy rock for the latter half of "Nomenclature," and Spanish guitar and a waltz vibe on the beautiful "Effigy." "Not a Robot, But a Ghost" is easily the most radical (and most interesting) departure, with fuzzed-out electronic percussion and spiky guitar lines pushing the violin and whistling to the background. It's certainly different, and welcome as a fresh approach for Bird. Of course, the album has its more direct and familiar moments. The soaring "Fitz & Dizzyspells" and the more relaxed opener and first single, "Oh No," both are excellent, and could be described as Bird's signature sound, while "Anonanimal" showcases his clever, captivating wordplay.
The album doesn't hit it out of the park with every swing ("Natural Disaster" does little for me), but there are enough exceptional songs to warrant high praise and repeated listens. With a little patience and attention to detail, Noble Beast reveals itself as some of Andrew Bird's best material to date.
Note: For the more adventurous listener, Noble Beast comes in a deluxe edition with a bonus instrumental disc, Useless Creatures, full of avant-garde, experimental musical musings.