“You may not know me but you feel my stare,” sings Andrew Bird near the onset of Are You Serious, his first album (minus assorted EPs, cover tune projects and instrumental musings) since 2012’s Break It Yourself. It’s an uneasy line in an equally agitated song called Roma Fade that breezes along with an effortless pop sway. Until that line arrives. Then the mood blacks out for a beat or two before resuming. It’s like getting shunted briefly through a tunnel during a summer drive.
The various stylistic guises of Bird don’t always flock together. He is part indie-pop star, part chamber-style vaudevillian (what with the whistling and pizzicato violin bits) and part cerebral instrumentalist. Are You Serious largely opts for Bird No. 1. It’s a far more raucous, loose and downright fun session than anything he has issued in a decade. But there is still that warble of unease – an almost playful paranoia – that bubbles under the surface.
You hear it in spades during Left Handed Kisses, the queasy duet with Fiona Apple (duel is more like it) that is offered as a total rethink on presumptive romantic connections by way of what the latter artist terms a “back handed love song.”
Valleys of the Young, on the other hand, ponders the youth (“you’re going on 64 driving down 65”) of colliding generations with a portrait of pop fancy that rages outside the song’s swirling psychedelic core with squalls of Sonic Youth-level guitar. It’s a tale of love and death with “hearts constantly breaking” and the guitar onslaught finally overtaking and puncturing the pop bliss. For a stylist of Bird’s usually reserved fortitude, the song is an all out rampage.
Slightly less intrusive is The New St. Jude, a more Dylan-esque escapade that bounces about like Graceland-era Paul Simon before settling into the solemnity of latter day Grateful Dead. Compared to the more extreme moments of Are You Serious, the tune is like a Sunday morning mimosa after an especially cagey Saturday night.
Initial reviews remark that Are Your Serious is a reflection and affirmation of Bird’s family life. Maybe so. The acoustic warmth and hope of Chemical Switches suggest as such with its stripped down make up of guitar and whistling. But the tune is essentially the eye in a hurricane of a record, one that doesn’t relent until the album closing Bellevue. There, the music melts into a looping melody spurred on by violin and fortified by a bright, free flowing groove before coming to rest on the words “I think I’ve found someone.”
Then again, concluding this turbulent session in a sea of seeming contentment and quiet with a song that shares its name with a famous New York public hospital suggests this love story comes with a bit of baggage – or at least some artillery to weather the storm with.