There are plenty of reasons people might hate Andrew Bird. For one, he seems kind of gimmicky. Remember the Squirrel Nut Zippers, who spent the late '90s re-creating old-time swing music? That fad came and went — and Bird was a part of it, adding his violin to three albums. And then every article you read about the guy is bound to mention that he's really good at whistling. There's nothing wrong with adding a happy-go-lucky pucker to a song here and there, but Bird sounds like he's always whistling while he's working. It gets annoying.
Then there's the fact that he writes about his creative process for The New York Times — a self-indulgent task, especially since he uses the phrase “a little Ghanaian street music, but more arranged” to describe what he's intending to record. That's not even mentioning the latest Internet rumor — that he's doing interviews only with “high-profile” publications this time around. Does this Chicago songwriter really deserve such red carpet treatment? No — not yet.
But it's hard to hate someone whose success has come without the help of a radio hit or prominent television placement. It's also difficult to abhor an artist with Bird's rigorous work ethic. Since 1995, he's appeared as a guest on 50 records, including ones by Will Oldham, Neko Case, and My Morning Jacket. That's not even counting the seven albums he's released under his own name.
If you're still not a fan of Andrew Bird by now, though, his eighth and latest album, Noble Beast, could change your mind. It's definitely changing something: The first week of its release, it entered the Billboard charts at Number 12, the highest chart debut for Bird so far.
There's a whimsical, carefree quality to Noble Beast Bird's earlier work didn't possess, at least not to this degree. In the past, he drew on a dizzying array of genres, from various jazz eras to country-rock and desert psych rock — you name it, he'd mash it into one album, and, sometimes, one song. But there's something different about Noble Beast, something beyond the slower, folksier vibe on display. Bird relies less on the guitar-driven song structures of his past few CDs, and when he genre-hops, he actually manages the feat gracefully. “Not a Robot, But a Ghost” has elements of Latin rhythms riding along a surf guitar sound, while “Effigy” stands out as one of the best songs he's written; its quick Irish fiddle intro segues into a Townes Van Zandt–leaning ballad with Kelly Hogan. Opener “Oh No” has a midtempo, Simon and Garfunkel thing happening. More importantly, it quietly asserts itself through Bird's vocal tenderness; he uses singing to emote, where in the past he'd just use his violin.
This songwriter still relishes compositions that don't use his voice. Bundled with the deluxe version of Noble Beast is a nine-track bonus album, Useless Creatures. Like his 2002 EP, The Ballad of the Red Shoes, Creatures contains purely instrumental tunes that demonstrate Bird is more than the indie flavor of the month. This is a classically trained violinist here — one who has clearly spent as much time listening to Mozart as he has to pop songs. With Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche and bassist Todd Sickafoose, Bird runs through an impressive array of compositions that are quite abstract in their tone and structure. “You Woke Me Up” flutters through seven minutes of layered violin strumming and plucking. “Carrion Suite” is stirring as anything Bird has done with words; it's a complex number, with shifting tempos and solos throughout Kotche and Sickafoose's sparse rhythmic backdrops.
Creatures is the first Andrew Bird album to showcase how talented he really is. So, of course, the success he's poised to have from that disc and Noble Beast could make you hate him even more. But look past all the hyperbole, and you have an artist finally making the most of his abundant musical knowledge, making all those trite criticisms pretty insignificant.