Andrew Bird, ‘Hands of Glory’ – Album Review
As virtuostic as he is proflific, the Chicago-born Andrew Bird has been giving us slices of baroque gorgeousness every year for a decade. At 39, he's established a unique, signature sound, a pastiche of a fragile violin, earnest lyricism and clever arrangements, somewhere in the environs of fellow indie darlings Sufjan Stevens and the Arcade Fire. And so on 'Hands of Glory,' when that violin becomes more of a fiddle, the listener naturally sits with rapt attention. This is a side of Bird we haven't heard.
Bird has referred to 'Hands' as a "companion piece" to his esteemed 'Break It Yourself,' released earlier this year. As such, he spends these eight songs reinterpreting his earlier work and, in a few instances, drawing on musical legends. Millennial baroque and old-time country share an undercurrent of melancholy, and it's in that nostalgic intersection that Bird creates sorrowful and beautiful textures. He becomes one with the late, great Townes Van Zandt on the poignant and pining cover 'If I Needed You' (performed recently on Letterman). That sad simplicity leads into the 'Break It Yourself' standout 'Orpheo,' another heart-string puller, what with the hearthrob Bird waxing poetic on the fleeting nature of romance and offering up a chorus of "You say you don't love because it'll disappear" among searching guitar strings.
Similarly, on the original 'Something Biblical,' he compares heartbreak to drought, painting pictures like "In your absence nothing's growing / and still the county remains dry." And yet Bird finds a foreboding silver lining in the dust cloud, singing next "still we keep on dreaming of that fifty year flood."
There's power in his vulnerability, here amplified by the essentialist recording technique. On each track, it's just Bird, his fellow musicians and a single microphone. While the intentional datedness could come off awkward in less capable hands, 'Hands of Glory' flirts with the timeless. 'Spirograph,' for instance, is a soft-spun eulogy of the highest order.
The bookends of 'Three White Horses' and 'Beyond the Valley of the Three White Horses,' may be epic in scope, but they feel human in size, Bird singing of departures and journeys and death and trust. "Don't dismiss it likes it's easy / tell me what's so easy, about coming to say goodbye" he sings next to a pleading singing saw. The closer, in contrast, showcases his swan-song violin, gliding and twirling among banjo plucks and the soft chants of "three white horses, three white horses." In the final minutes, the sounds gather around that microphone, coalesce into catharsis, and grant a quaking release after the 35 minutes of yearning that have come before.