Andrew Bird’s Complicated Love Stories
March 10, 2023
If you saw Grammy nominated musician Andrew Bird on the street, you might mistake him for a quirky academic, photographed in large wrap-around scarves and vests. The Chicago-based musician attended Northwestern University, though not as a scholar of philosophy, as his songs and sense of fashion might suggest, but as a violinist. Throughout his sixteen studio albums, Bird has transitioned smoothly from folk to indie-rock.
‘My Finest Work Yet’
Bird’s 2019 album is, arguably, his ‘finest work yet,’ though the standout of this album is ‘Sisyphus’ – the album’s most poetic song, inspired by the Greek myth. Bird’s Sysiphus questions why he continues to push the stone up the hill over and over again.
It’s easy to get lost in Andrew Bird’s expert violin skills and entrancing whistling, though this song is ultimately a triumph of poetry. ‘Sisyphus’ is an english teacher’s dream, ripe with alliteration and imaginative vocabulary. Few artists can manage to fit so many elegant words into one song – ‘recalcitrant’ and ‘taciturn’ appear in the same line.
Sysiphus peered into the mist / a stone’s throw from the precipice paused / did he jump or did he fall as he gazed into the maw of the morning mist? / Did he raise both fists and say to hell with this and just / let the rock roll?
Bird’s lyricism elevates the song to a spiritually inspiring experience, encouraging listeners to let go and “let the rock roll.”
“History forgets the moderates,” Bird’s Sysiphus muses as he decides to let the stone go, a profound musing on political history in a song about philosophy.
Though, for all of Bird’s witty lyricism, what sets his sound apart is his talent for the violin. In an interview, he said,
“The violin is just the easiest way I have to express what’s in my head. I’ll just fully, unconsciously do whatever it takes to make that sound happen. Just like I would with my own voice. I don’t even think of the violin as being part of any discipline. When I’m doing that tune “Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left”, half of the time I may be out of my mind on stage. I may be supposed to whistle the next line but I actually sing it, or I’m supposed to sing the next line and actually whistle. Or I’m supposed to whistle and I play it on the violin. They’re all very direct mediums of connection. It’s all coming from the same place.”
“Are You Serious”
Bird’s album “Are You Serious” was released in 2016.
Fiona Apple and Andrew Bird on ‘Left Handed Kisses’ – the collab we never knew we needed. Left Handed Kisses is a hidden gem, pure magic, and Apple’s voice pairs beautifully with Bird’s. The song is a scene starring Bird and Apple where Bird plays a skeptic in love and Apple an optimist.
In an interview for Stereogum, Bird says:
“My inclination was to write a song about why I can’t write a simple love song. The song began as an internal dialogue. At first it was just my voice. Then another voice came creeping in and I thought ‘this should be a duet if I can find the right person.’ I needed to find someone really indicting. She was totally committed. The session was a long whiskey-fueled night – unhinged, for sure. All worth it, of course. I can’t write simple love songs. People are complex.”
Bird and Apple sing in unison:
“And all your left handed kisses were just prelude to another / prelude to your back-handed love song / baby”
The song already feels like a scene in a movie about two willful lovers, though the music video pushes the song even further into the realm of cinematography. Bird and Apple are perfect co-stars. Apple picks petals off a flower, smashes a glass, and bangs her head in frustration while Bird sings.
“Now it’s time for a handsome little bookend,” Bird sings, satirizing the way that love songs (and movies) put neat little bows on complicated relationships. The song ends:
“Now it’s time to tie up all the loose ends / Am I still a skeptic or did you / make me a believer? / If you hesitate you’ll hear the click of the receiver?”
With the threat of the “click of the receiver,” Apple’s character poses an ultimatum which complicates this story even more: express your love consistently and unabashedly, or this is over.
The idea of a ‘left handed kiss’ came to Bird while his mind was away from the song, and the meaning grew as he wrote. He says, “I feel like a left handed kiss is when you’re not putting your full heart into it.”
Some of the best love stories in Hollywood are the messy ones; La La Land, 500 Days of Summer. Even in lyrical form, Bird continues this tradition. I find myself wishing these I could see these characters on the big screen – I would certainly watch that movie.
In Are You Serious, another song about an ill-fated, messy romance, Bird acknowledges his tendency to use words so obscure you have to look them up in the dictionary.
“Used to be so wilfully obtuse / Or is the word abstruse? / Semantics like a noose / Get out your dictionaries.”
Bird reveals that his romantic interest has a boyfriend – “Your boyfriend’s gone to get a beer”
The phrase “Are You Serious” is a double entendre – at first, an offhand remark; “really?” Though, Bird’s narrator interprets this relationship as difficult – “Every night of your life, you’ll fight for it.” He is also ultimately asking if the relationship is “serious,” as in “will it last?”
“I Want to See Pulaski at Night”
Bird’s album “I Want to See Pulaski at Night” was released in 2017, comprised of seven songs, six of which are instrumental.
“Pulaski at Night” is the star of this album. This song is a love story like the others, not for a person but for his hometown. For all the love stories Bird tells, this one is the most enduring. The song is a passionate, yearning ode to Chicago. Not a single line is wasted, and the sentimental lyrics are accompanied by a tender, sweet and sentimental violin melody.
This love story, too, is complicated. Bird regales his love for Chicago despite its reputation for crime. The title comes from an exchange student Bird knew who, Bird says, always wanted to see Pulaski street at night. “We thought it was funny and absurd,” Bird says,“because Pulaski is a street that runs the length of Chicago’s west side and I can tell you, you don’t want to see Pulaski at night.”
“I write you a story / but it loses its thread / and all of my witnesses / keep turning up / keep turning up dead”
The “Dead witnesses” in Bird’s story are, presumably, Chicago’s citizens, witnesses to its beauty who “keep turning up dead.”
Ceaselessly and despite it all, Bird is drawn to Chicago’s beauty, as illustrated by the refrain “Come back to Chicago, city of / city of light.”
Though Bird’s complicated lyrics sometimes border on pretension, he doesn’t pretend to be careless or unassuming. Andrew Bird doesn’t want to put a perfect shine on love, but perfection is evident in his musical craft.