"Each song is kind of like its own universe," says Andrew Bird of his new album, The Mysterious Production of Eggs. They're universes he's been creating and recreating, on and off, since he was a teenager. "I think I was 19 when those lyrics started coming to me," says Bird of the haunting and rhythmic "Skin Is, My." "It's been through, you know, 50 different rewrites since then."
The work has paid off. Cultural stalwarts (Pitchfork.com, NPR, the Boston Globe) are making like astronomers of late, poring over Bird's vast musical skylines, talking at length about the planetary systems and nebula that constitute them. That precocious glockenspiel! The gorgeous violin (my lord, is he plucking it?!)! That other-worldly whistling! The one-man-band looping and sampling thing he's got going live! And -- oh God, yes -- those playful rhymes.
The stories that go along with these celestial bodies of sound make for great copy, and Bird's more than happy to oblige, talking about them at length. He's an adept and intuitive violin player -- sawing, plucking, doing anything he can to get the right sound -- because he's been playing since the age of 4. From a very young age, Bird says, he "could just hear something -- say, some inflection off the violin -- and be able to immediately process it without having to transcribe it or anything."
His spacey, mutative whistling comes from a completely different place, but one he's equally happy to talk about. "I've got a certain physiology that might pre-dispose me to whistling," he told Toronto's NOW magazine, "a strange ambidextrous tongue that helps me get a broad tonal range ... It can roll in all directions, and I can form a clover leaf."
One thing people spend very little time on, though, says Bird -- and the thing he himself is a little reticent to talk about -- are the words themselves. "I'm surprised at how few times I'm asked about the actual songs, the [lyrics]. They're not dismissed exactly, they're just referred to as being whimsical." That's a huge error of analysis. Whatever whimsy his songs have are far more a function of the melodies he writes than the words. The melodies, that is, and his crazy theremin-esque tongue. "This one here in Nashville ... said 'looks like he's got his thesaurus out.'"
Snap. But in all honesty, Bird's not giving people much help. Several interviews quote him as saying his lyrics are just strings of fun-sounding words. When asked about that, he laughs, "That's funny because I tend to marginalize [my lyrics] in the way I talk about them because it's one of the more elusive parts of what I'm doing -- one of the more mysterious parts -- and so my attitude towards it is to say, 'Yeah, it's just like doing crossword puzzles or word games.'" Mysterious and elusive to Bird himself, that is, which is why he often downplays them. "I don't want to talk about words because I don't want to take myself too seriously."
"You're what happens when two substances collide / and by all accounts you really should have died."
"My ear is connected to what I play," Bird says, "Melodies come to me every hour of the day, whether I try or not." That's not so, though, with his lyrics. "Words are really tricky," he continues, "because it's hard to have faith [in their meanings] anymore." It's a losing battle against the eternal evolution and muddling of the English language. Rather than fighting against that entropy, Bird retreats into less-used forms, "I jump on words that are either out of use or can somehow be given new meaning." With "Sovay," he created an entire song around a word he never bothered to learn the meaning of. "I'll jump on a word like that, because then I can give it some meaning. And then suddenly it's got way more weight than any word that's in common usage or conversation."
On The Mysterious Production of Eggs, Bird builds his universes within those words, colliding ideas and entire songs against themes and melodies in ways that often seem counterintuitive. Pastoral vistas and swelling, bucolic melodies combine jarringly with capitalistic rhetoric and science jargon. "In almost every song, there's a theme of someone or some force, who usually [doesn't have] the best intentions," says Bird, "trying to quantify things that can't be quantified. Ultimately we're rooting for them to fail." But though there are sinister forces at play in some of these songs, there's none of the overarching technological dread that's been at play so much lately, in bands like Radiohead and Grandaddy. "[Sometimes] it's a sympathetic character who can't help it. He's gotta try [to quantify things], but he can't do it," says Bird, whose songs often negotiate quiet truces with these people -- scientists and mathematicians who try to corral the dynamism of the natural world. It's not their fault, he seems to say. They're just wrong.
Talent, genius, love, even signs of affection / He floods the market. There's no price protection
At other times, though, it's pretty obvious who the bad guys are. The sentiments in "Banking on a Myth" were the impetus for his first solo album, Weather Systems, which he wrote as a kind of sabbatical from The Mysterious Production of Eggs, which was itself scrapped and restarted three times before completion. "The idea was I'm sitting on my farm on my front porch and I know that they're going to put a highway through the farm. Eminent domain. So I'm thinking where is the line drawn with that. Then as I'm thinking this, a huge weather system comes rolling through the valley and I'm thinking, 'you can't quite quantify that one.' But that's about it. They're going to try just about everything else. Emotions -- whatever else they can possibly seize, bottle and sell -- they will."
Get out your measuring cups and we'll play a new game
There are a lot of heady ideas in Bird's finished products -- never more densely packed than in the new album -- but that doesn't mean he's been lying to people about the puzzle elements and gamesmanship. You can imagine that anyone who's spent the better part of a decade on an album might get a little bored after a while. "You need a challenge sometimes, to write a song," Bird says, "To get you off your ass, to get you going on some words." So he gives himself bizarre writing prompts. "I'll tell myself, 'alright, you've gotta work Greek Cypriots into a song [laughs], or dark matter or something like that.'"
That's where his imagery comes from, he says, but the actual meaning comes last. Perhaps it's not until he nears the end of these puzzle-playing exercises and mashings of ideas with life events and broad scientific concepts -- these curious, labyrinthine assemblages of words -- that the meaning reveals itself. "[A song's] basically not in the world of things that make sense until the last 20 to 30 percent of the process." Somewhere in there comes a point, says Bird, that the words stick to each other, and he realizes, "'somehow I accidentally happened upon something that could make sense.'" That's when the work happens. "That's what takes forever. It's a bit [like] forcing a square peg into a round hole."
Everything prior to that, he says, laughing, is just "walking around with a melody in my head, speaking in tongues."
Andrew Bird opens for Nickel Creek at the Big Easy on Saturday, Dec 3, at 7pm. Tickets: $25. Visit www.ticketswest.com or call 325-SEAT.