Andrew Bird is an indie-rock vocalist and multi-instrumentalist from Lake Forest, Illinois. He debuted as a solo artist with 2003’s Weather Systems, after leaving the band Bowl of Fire, with whom he’d spent most of the mid to late 90’s. His early work found some following, particularly with fans of the band, but after signing with Fat Possum Records, he dropped 2007’s Armchair Apochrypha, his first solo effort to chart on the Billboard 200. He went on top the US Folk charts twice, first with 2012’s Break It Yourself, and again with 2016’s Are You Serious. With a long career which winds through a multitude of styles, labels, and albums, Bird has become a favorite of folk-rock fans thanks to a consistent output and creative style. This week, he’s released his 12th album, ambitiously titled My Finest Work Yet.
Immediately, Bird’s experience as a songwriter is obvious in the many unique chord progressions he uses. Tracks like the opener, “Sisyphus,” and the album’s strongest cut, “Proxy War,” are fairly unpredictable and the inventive progressions allow for a few unique vocal melodies as well. It’s easily the strongest point of Bird’s songwriting on this album.
Vocally, he’s quite strong as well. On “Olympians,” he seamlessly transitions from driving, simple verses to large howling choruses, executing each with quite a bit of power and support. With “Archipelago,” on the other hand, he sells a relatively run-of-the-mill track with a dynamic mix of sweet falsettos a riveting strength. Andrew has never been renowned as a particularly remarkable vocalist, but for the majority of this albums he gives quite strong performances that elevate even the less impressive songs.
Maybe the strongest piece of this puzzle, however, is his skill as an instrumentalist. He is best known as a strong violinist, and he exhibits this many times on the record, including an excellent solo on “Don the Struggle,” which leaves me wishing each track had contained such a solo. He’s also noted, in the album’s credits, for his whistling, which is admittedly fantastic! On “Manifest,” for example, he whistles an excellent melody which adds quite a bit to the track.
On the subject of lyrics, unfortunately, My Finest Work Yet stands on shaky ground. There are wonderful moments like early cut, “Bloodless,” which draws much inspiration from the Spanish Civil War in 1936. On the other hand, there’s a handful of pretentious and overall meaningless lyrics all over the album. “Cracking Codes,” and the closer, “Bellevue Bridge Club,” are the worst offenders on this front, packed full of words which say very little.
Another complaint which has dogged this LP since the release of its first singles is just how far out on his sleeve Andrew wears his influences. “Sisyphus,” though enjoyable, could sneak perfectly into any Father John Misty album, which “Olympians,” pulls heavily from early Springsteen efforts. Additionally, “Archipelago,” and “Proxy War,” bare striking resemblance to the work of the Beatles. It isn’t so egregious as to make these tracks unlistenable, and if Andrew were a younger songwriter, I could easily forgive this, but at this stage in his career, it’s frustrating to hear such lack of originality.
The worst offense, without a doubt, is the production, which Bird did himself. Nearly every one of the 10 songs is muddy, lifeless, and flat. Additionally, he seems to have no care for the different tones needed for each track. “Bloodless,” for example, is billed as some mysterious jazz piece, but the instruments are so brightly mixed that all intrigue is gone. The album’s worst track, “Fallorun,” is a jumbled mess which is made infinitely worse by the way each instrument bleeds into one another. This record would have benefitted from a more expert touch behind the board.
Ultimately, My Finest Work Yet is certainly enjoyable. For fans of the growing folk-rock movement, this is a fine listen to hold you over until the next Father John Misty or Fleet Foxes release, but it could’ve been much more. Andrew’s songwriting and instrumental abilities set this album up with a ton of potential, but poor production, a lack of originality, and a very mixed bag of lyrics hold it back.
My Finest Work Yet is a moderately enjoyable album that could’ve benefitted from having a few more cooks in the kitchen.
AMAZON LINK: https://amzn.to/2UbiiiB