My Finest Work Yet, Andrew Bird’s latest on Loma Vista, follows up 2017’s Echolocation River with a much different tone. He’s much more direct as a songwriter here, with each word a direct message toward society’s ills.
Producer Paul Butler captured each note on tape, recording the multi-instrumentalist composer at Bareroot Studios in Los Angeles. Guests in addition to producer Butler include Tyler Chester on piano and organs (playing a prominent role on the album), Alan Hampton on bass, Blake Mills on guitar (with Mike Viola contributing guitar on “Archipelago”), Ted Poor materfully delivering lush instrumentation, and Abraham Rounds on drums. Madison Cunningham adds subtle vocal performances throughout the record, adding to the lyrical power.
Andrew Bird is not wasting any time. He opens with “Sisyphus,” a reference to the cruel Greek king punished and forced to push a rock uphill, only to find it rolling back down. “Sisyphus” may not have been the song I would have chosen to set the tone for the record, but the message seems clear. The heavy-handed mix juxtaposed against light whistling suggests the contradictions and juxtapositions that are to come musically in My Finest Work Yet. Listeners are first introduced to Chester’s stunning, joyful piano work here, and rightly so.
The caustic “Bloodless” cuts as the lead single, truly throwing down the gauntlet. Bird’s anthemic vocal take here contrasts with restraint as the building block for the rest of record. References to 1936 drive the smokey club groove, as some of the best violin composition in rock music weaves through the measures of a jazz-infused vibe. Opening with piano and pizzicato violin weaving through a call to arms for humanity’s soul, an uncivil war is really what we face in the world today. Historically, art and music scream out the horrors in our culture long before institutions break down in chaos. Who’s listening?
“Olympians” soars with hope musically, an upbeat tempo driving an almost frenetic pace that eventually drops into an abyss. Is this our society’s war on anything that changes how we feel? Contrasting this with “Cracking Codes” suggests a feeling of hope. Back to lighthearted pizzicato halfway through the album, this is a warm embrace. Orchestral beauty reassures each contradiction within the lyrics, suggesting Bird knows how different this blatant authenticity may be for his fans.
“Fallorun” weaves lush string textures punctuated with a masterclass in piano. Every album has a song that settles in and calls to me, and “Archipelago” is that one track. Poetry set to music, this is perfection in so many ways. History, metaphor and literature all combine to become an art piece that haunts the soul. To be better than we thought we could be, rather than succumb. Sheer brilliance I say!
Sequencing is an important aspect of any great record and “Proxy War” has its place towards the back end of the album. Virtual cloud-based reality: hey, we’re living it, right–but is it real? Packing a punch heading out of this collection, Bird shines the spotlight in “Manifest,” continuing an analysis of our world, virtual or not. He’s calling us all out with lyrics that suggest that the truth is out there.
An orchestral marching band trudges on urging “Don the Struggle” with heavy, purposeful encouragement. Somehow, Bird’s vocals seem almost loving with his Christ-like forgiveness. Fighting his way to the finish musically, piano, violin, and warm cello create a celebratory soundtrack to his message. Recognizing the power of his art, “Bellevue Bridge Club” is a thinking man’s closing remarks on a seemingly insane world. His world held hostage, the songwriter suggests the Stockholm Syndrome is to blame for a blindness to each other’s suffering. Soft and sweet, this lullaby offers a solution to the chaos of the world that he so directly tackles on this record. —Lisa Whealy.