Take in the title of his newest album and you might surmise Andrew Bird is either immensely proud of the music it represents or something of a tongue-in-cheek appraiser of his own accomplishments.
It turns out, in explaining why the record is called “My Finest Work Yet,” Bird is a bit of both.
“I do think there’s something special about this record, but I’ve had that thought before, which is part of the inside joke,” he said. “It’s just funny. Your best work doesn’t always line up with your moment of attention or validation. This is my 14th album. I just thought why not just come out and say it? We’re not living in an age of discretion.”
Still, Bird has reason to celebrate his “Finest Work.” Much of the record’s music reflects topical, even political, sentiments in ways that stray from the more open-ended narratives of his past recordings. But the lyrics are more empowering than dire, as on the album-opening “Sisyphus.” “Take my hand and we’ll claim this land,” Bird sings with almost defiant optimism. “Take my hand and we’ll let the rock roll.”
“Writing songs thinking, ‘I’m going to write about this,’ doesn’t tend to make for good music. I just know the things I care about will end up in my songs, so it’s art first and the message can be massaged a bit in the finishing. It would be conspicuous to not have these things come up in my songs.”
As with all of Bird’s albums, the music is as distinct and persuasive as the storylines. Long an expert pop craftsman, he relies on a pantry of familiar ingredients for the songs on “My Finest Work Yet.” The arrangements lean to the lightly cinematic with arrangements colored by artful jabs of pizzicato violin and whirling displays of what remains Bird’s signature musical accent – his own whistling.
“I completely follow musical impulses, regardless of what the lyrics are saying,” Bird said. “That is, I don’t think, ‘How should I underscore these lyrics with music?’ It’s usually melody first, and whether that melody is carried by whistling or violin is just intuitive. I don’t really intend to have so much whistling, but it’s so casual and sort of innocent it tends to win out in the end.”
Bird will showcase music from “My Finest Work Yet” during two very different concert settings this week. On Sunday, he will help close the Forecastle festival in Louisville with an all-star bill that includes The Avett Brothers, Lettuce and Kentucky’s own Tyler Childers. Then on Monday, he performs on a bill for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio that curiously pairs him with contemporary piano instrumentalist George Winston.
“Well, WoodSongs will be acoustic around one mic, Bill Monroe style. Forecastle will be the full-on rock show. As for George Winston, I wasn’t aware we were sharing the same stage, but I’m always up for unexpected pairings that get me out of the indie-rock circles. New Age gets a bad rap, but ambient music can be really profound and attuned to its environment. George Winston’s new record (“Restless Wind”) is just that. It’s as reactive to our times as an instrumental record could be.”
The WoodSongs outing will be Bird’s first Lexington concert visit in seven years. That’s an unusually long hiatus, considering he has been playing local venues for over two decades. His first shows here were at the long-defunct Lynagh’s Music Club with his then-band Bowl of Fire. At the time, Bird wondered what Lexington would find intriguing enough about his music to give an unknown songster and violinist from Chicago a listen.
“When I would roll into a town like Lexington in my conversion van in those early years, I would think, ‘Why would anyone come out to hear us?’ It’s not that I didn’t feel worthy. It was pure pragmatism and a reminder not to feel entitled as that leads to bitterness, and there are few things more unattractive than a bitter musician. I just never take the live experience for granted. The music industry is beyond my control, but the live thing I feel ownership of.”