Andrew Bird’s Lull: An Elegant Symphony on The Capacity to Be Alone

Andrew Bird’s Lull: An Elegant Symphony on The Capacity to Be Alone

Andrew Bird’s Unusual, Gradual Climb to Success

Andrew Bird grew up in Chicago’s northern suburbs. His mother was an artist and had visions of all of her children playing classical music. However, Andrew was the only one who took to it. He began violin lessons at age 4, using the Suzuki method, which stresses learning by ear. In high school, while Bird’s friends were listening to the Smiths and the Cure, he was listening to Mozart’s Requiem. At Northwestern University, though, he began to chafe against his classical training. Bird resented the conservatory’s self-gratifying ethos, the prevailing view that the headier the piece of music the better, even if it turned audiences away. He wanted to improvise, rather than play written notes.

Bird’s gradual climb to success has been an unusual one for a business in which careers tend to be made on the back of a big break. But his increasing popularity also says something broader about the shifting dynamics of the industry. The rock-music business has long been dominated by major labels following a simple formula: They saw what bands were selling and looked for others that sounded just like them. And since these same labels held what often seemed like exclusive access to the key retailers and influential radio stations, it was difficult for independent record companies and more inventive, esoteric artists to find traction in the general public. But now with the precipitous drop in record sales, the major labels have lost much of their leverage, and with it, their ability to determine what records will become popular.

Bird’s sound is not easy to categorize. His songs are swelling and orchestral, the legacy of the years he spent studying classical violin at Northwestern University’s prestigious conservatory and elsewhere. He also has been compared with the Irish rock singer Damien Rice, but Bird’s sound is also distinctly American, part of a new wave of folk, free folk, psych folk or freak folk, as it has variously been called, that has grown in popularity in recent years. His songs have a pastoral, down-home feel, but they also have a darkness and emotional complexity not typically associated with folk rock.

It’s been said that Will Oldham is the troubadour of alternative-country, Jeff Buckley was the intimate psychologist, Devendra Banhart is the gentle psychedelic minstrel and Rufus Wainwright is the sophisticated popular cult star. Andrew Bird can be described as being all of them at the same time: the master of deeply-felt singing, the master of layered and complex arrangements, the master of lyrical imagery, the master of celestial melodies and the master of both the bizarre and of the sublimely subtle.

When Bird is on-stage, whether it be at a 75-seat gloomy bar in Chicago, or performing before thousands at Chicago’s Millennium Park or New York City’s Carnegie Hall, he’s always engaged in something of a musical high-wire act, whistling, singing and maniacally shifting from his violin to a guitar to a glockenspiel. And all the while, his feet are busy working the pedals of an electronic looping station that records and then plays back his musical progressions in short intervals. He’s a true one-man-band, layering one musical passage on top of another, gradually nudging each song toward its orchestral crescendo.

Andrew Bird’s Lull: The Elegant Sounds of Solitude

Lull is a musical animated short film, the tale of an old man and the sea. The film is a very lonely one. The old man is walking on a pier with his bucket of lobsters, and he encounters a large squid to which he is fatefully attracted. He becomes an oceanic recluse, floating around and rejecting the world of men. It’s a fitting accompaniment for Chicago-based singer, violinist, whistler, and songwriter Andrew Bird, who has re-recorded Weather Systems’ Lull backed by the Chicago indie-rockers Dianogah. Bird sings of being alone, “It can be quite romantic/ Like Jacques Cousteau/ Underneath the Atlantic/ A fantastic voyage/ To parts unknown.”

That gorgeous sense of solitude reaches its apotheosis in Lull, where Bird explains (with almost mathematic precision), “Being alone can be quite romantic / Like Jacques Cousteau underneath the Atlantic / A fantastic voyage through parts unknown / Going to depths where the sun’s never shone / I fascinate myself / When I’m all alone.” The ingenious rhyme structure is enough to make you cry outright (Bird is one of the most underrated talents in music, period). But the striking interpenetration of his lyrical imagery and musical composition, the song bouncing happily along, as if riding Cousteau’s mellow ocean homeward, combined with his poignant delivery is a truly exhilarating experience.

If you really pay attention, it’s enough to make you crack a smile, especially when Bird self-consciously skewers the egotistical and self-centered ideas of loneliness, turning the criticisms of Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” back onto himself (“Rambling on rather self-consciously / While I’m stirring these condiments into my tea / And I think I’m so lame / That I think this song is about me / Don’t I don’t I don’t I?“). The layers of Lull are way too many to count, but there’s no doubting that it’s a masterpiece of clever craftsmanship.

Andrew Bird will be giving a Special Performance in Washington D.C. to celebrate the inauguration of Barack Obama as U.S. President. Bird will be joined by Chicago’s Waco Brothers, Eleventh Dream Day, Jon Langford, Sally Timms, David Honeyboy Edwards, Ken Vandermark, Freakwater, Icy Demons, Judson Claiborne and more at the “Big Shoulders Ball: Chicago Celebrates Change” that will take place at the Black Cat venue in Washington, D. C. The performance will take place on January 19th, the evening before Obama is sworn in as President.

Andrew Bird’s Lull: An Elegant Symphony on The Capacity to Be Alone

Animation by: Lisa Barcy

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