Dialing down the electric-guitar histrionics that characterized his most recent LP, Armchair Apocrypha, Andrew Bird brings a pronounced delicacy to Noble Beast. The result of a meticulous recording process (the evolution of Bird’s songs from hummed tunes to recorded products can be followed on the blog he wrote last year for The New York Times), the album is closer in spirit to 2006’s The Mysterious Production of Eggs in that it relies on whistling, distinct melodies, and lots of open space. Other characteristics now firmly recognizable in all of Bird’s oeuvre can be duly accounted for as well: The precocious, improbably polysyllabic poetry, each line an ornate monument to ambiguity, is well represented in songs like “Nomenclature” and “Tenuousness,” and Bird’s virtuosic violin, a staple of every album he’s put out, is once again looped, plucked, and seared into the listener’s brain.
But it’s more than a little frustrating to dig into another set of Bird’s thought-experiments and come out applauding first and foremost the guy’s technique. Bird’s charm has always been that he seemed to succeed in spite of himself: Somehow there was a soulfulness shining through all the intricate architecture of songs like “Fake Palindromes” and “Fiery Crash.” But even after repeated listens to Noble Beast, none of its songs packs a punch nearly as powerful as the one felt from the line “Thank God it’s fatal,” undercut as it was with spiraling guitar riffs on the Apocrypha centerpiece “Heretics.”
To be sure, Noble Beast offers its fair share of dazzle: the moment when the strummy chorus of “Fitz and Spells” is interrupted by a sizzling violin solo, the surprisingly jammy, Wilco-like detour toward the end of “Anonanimal,” and the earworm whistled hook of opener “Oh No.” Similar to witnessing Bird’s high-wire concert act, in which he deftly loops figures from guitar, violin, and vocals to create living sound colleges of pop songs, one comes away from Noble Beast feeling more impressed than moved.