How cerebral an experience, really, is listening to an Andrew Bird record? The singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and well-known whistler’s new LP, Inside Problems, rarely if ever gets bothered or strained or hot under the collar. Don’t get us wrong: his records are not cold, dead things. But there is a certain measure of coolness and braininess to the proceedings. (Shorthand: he sounds a lot like an icon of the NPR set.) The new record presents an interesting thesis, though: how slight or subtle can Bird sound without the record coming apart at the seams? It’s a complicated question — and one with which Bird doesn’t fully seem to come to terms on the new collection’s 11 songs.
For a record that will not, out of the gate, wow listeners, there’s a lot to like here – and that might speak, at least a little bit, to trends of streaming music song-by-song (and maybe creating it that way) instead of crafting a full-LP experience. The new Bird LP has some good songs and some great moments; it just isn’t more than the sum of its parts. But, again, there’s great music here, from the 70s soul genre workout of “Underlands” (with its pitch-perfect study of bass/drum shuffle) to the brilliant and meandering instrumental second half of “Eight.” There’s also a lot that could have been left on the editing room floor. On the verses of the otherwise decent “Make A Picture,” Bird’s instrument of choice, the violin, lacks melody – something even nay-sayers would never dare spitting at the man. “Atomized” has great choruses where Bird hammers out violin lines in tandem with belted-out vocals –but the verses are under-cooked. “Fixed Positions,” an acoustic-guitar piece, never lives up to its potential.
Bird is no novice at crafting a cohesive musical document; see Bird classics like 2007’s Armchair Apocrypha or, better yet, 2005’s Mysterious Production of Eggs for proof of that. But Inside Problems is a little bit of a hit and miss affair, where even the brighter moments end up feeling a little underwhelming. The title track is a good example. Bird, at times, sings and plays his heart out on this guitar/violin number but the lyrics – which delve into birth/rebirth and figurative molting – feel like they’re not up to the moment. “The Night Before Your Birthday” shows promise and confidence; “Stop n’ Shop” depends too much on vocal turns of phrase to get off the ground. (A closing whistle or good backing vocals two-thirds of the way through do little to save it.) Much of the record goes through this pockmarked yes/no, hit/miss routine.
One thing Bird does get right is the record’s closing number. Titled “Never Fall Apart,” the self-conscious number revolves around some excellent acoustic guitar and passionate vocal work from Bird. It’s more a descendant of the sonically warm These 13, his collaboration with Jimbo Mathus, than any of his solo outings proper. But, again, look at the standard that’s been set here. On the Mathus collaboration, Bird turned in a magnificent take on “Three White Horses,” which first appeared in slightly more experimental fashion on 2012’s Hands of Glory. This is what we’ve come to expect from the musician – and little less.
Inside Problems is worth a listen for long-time Andrew Bird fans, who will break apart the proceedings and pick through the remains for the best parts. And, all in all, it’s a decent collection to skim through on Spotify or your streaming platform of choice. As a collection proper, though? A solo LP? Bird’s done a lot better than this – and that’s a shadow that unfortunately looms large over the new material. — Justin Vellucci, Spectrum Culture, June 2, 2022