The designation of artist is conferred on a wide and varied collection of humanity these days. In most instances the description is a complete misnomer if not an outright fraud. Andrew Bird is not one of these instances. He is an artist in every detail of his work, and every note of his instrument. His canvass is the vast expanse of the human mind and the brush strokes of his auditory palette have become indelibly imposed on the souls of his many fans. Any review of his work needs to come with this explicit qualification lest I seem slightly arrogant in criticising one of the most complete musicians of our age.
Armchair Apocrypha is Bird’s third solo studio release since the disbanding of his band Bowl of Fire in 2003; although his continued dialogue with the audience has been continued through three live recordings Fingerlings, Fingerlings 2 and the 2006 release of Fingerlings 3. It is through these live recordings I have followed the work of Bird and it has provided a unique insight into the evolution of his musical style and the progression of his songs towards studio release. The 2005 release of The Mysterious Production Of Eggs was the culmination of continuous live performing and meticulous perfection of his sound. It was quite simply, a masterpiece, so it was with souring expectations that I embarked on Armchair Apocrypha.
Armchair Apocrypha is a vastly different album from its predecessors. Bird has introduces a much stronger electronic element to the sound, surely a testament to the influence of collaborator, electronic musician Martin Dosh. The production of the album has also been tweaked under the microscope with many of the raw edges, of previous albums, being ironed out. The, surely unexpected, result of this polishing is, quite surprisingly, to diminish the quality of the music. The focus on perfect sound has leaked much of the passion from the music. What has replaced it is an album that for large parts sounds empty and sterile, in stark contrast the warmth and comfort of TMPOE and the raw edged passion of his Fingerlings recordings. Bird’s ability to revive an emotive response in the listener is diminished by the cold, distant sound of the album and not even the lyrical complexity or the beautiful voice of Bird can save this in most cases.
Again this criticism has to be coupled with the regard I have for the work and on selected tracks the addition of electronic elements and a richer, band like complexity has dramatically added to the appeal. Plasticities and Dark Matter stand out as highlights of the album and remind me why Andrew Bird has become the closest thing I have to a musical prophet. My concern is that perhaps the brilliance of these tracks is only emphasised even more by the lack of distinguishable peaks throughout the remaining musical landscape of the album.