CRITICS tend to look too hard for progression, to miss the moments where a breather is just as legitimate a follow-up as a forward plunge. There’s a lot to be said for artistic arcs, but curating them should never lead us to avoid letting good human music happen to us. If we do, we miss or mislabel gems like Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky, a lovely album some dismissed as unfocused drivel.
Andrew Bird’s Noble Beast follows closely in the tradition of Sky Blue Sky, and I can predict with relative surety that critics and fans alike will pine for the scientific songmeister of the past. Where Apocrypha bubbled over with the excitement of whistled choruses, electric guitars and just the right use of violin, Noble Beast is relaxed and, in a sense, non-experimental. Where Apocrypha’s acts blew the time away with bits of condensed, hyperactive pop, these songs take time to unfold slowly and soothingly. This might be Andrew Bird’s satisfying, breezy cool-down in preparation for risk-taking next time.
There’s a couple of fantastic songs on Noble Beast, and a handful of competent ones. “Anonanmial” has sudden starts—moments of sparse percussion where the drums try to throw off a violin loop—before the song explodes like a firecracker and, just as quickly, fades away to the sound of Bird’s precociously pretty strings. It also bears more than a passing similarity to My Brightest Diamond’s “Dragonfly.” “Not a Robot, But a Ghost,” is a formless six minutes of clattering percussion, violin, fuzzed-out guitar notes (wait, is that a guitar?), dramatic piano, bells, violin again, and a full three minutes comprised mostly of eerie whistling. “Souverian” feels like Bird momentarily forgot his SAT vocabulary and insistent rhyming just to make an undeniably emotional pop song (“And in the spring/Tender grasses won’t burn easily/The thrushes sing/Still my lover won’t return to me . . . So very young/So very young, were we.”)
Those highlights cast a pallid light over the rest of the album. “Oh No” is a fine album opener, but taken by itself, feels like a tepid, un-enthusiastic Armchair throwaway. “Masterswarm” and “Fitz and the Dizzyspells” pass early and are never heard from again. “Tenuousness” piles on too much Andrew Bird shtick for its own good (“From proto-Sanskrit Minoans to porto-centric Lisboans/Greek Cypriots and Hobishots/Who hang around the ports a lot/Uh-huh”). But Noble Beast works better as a whole than when broken down into its constituent parts, with Bird fitting in lots of nice orchestral touches that show his penchant for classically influenced pop music.
Despite not being consistently brilliant or innovative, Noble Beast is completely satisfying. It emanates a feeling of warmness akin to the pastoral scene pictured on its cover. There’s a tree to lean on, light beams through the branches joyfully spreading its warmth, bees buzz around sunflowers, children run through the tall grass. And that’s good enough to make a enjoyable, if not terribly forward-moving, record.
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