Best Albums of 2019: # 1

1. Andrew Bird, “My Finest Work Yet”

If you’re at all familiar with Bird, you suspect the bold title of his 14th (!) album is not entirely a ruse. With a back catalog so steeped in ambiguity, it’s hard to discern whether he’s playing a sly joke on himself or being utterly sincere. What further complicates matters is that, after a few spins, it’s apparent that this is his best album in over a decade, up there with The Mysterious Production of Eggs (2005) and Armchair Apocrypha (2007).

Ever since seeing him in concert about nine years ago, mesmerized by how well he alone held an audience while creating layers of melodies and textures out of a masterful use of tape loops, I knew Bird had a great album in him, which made the relative anodyne stiffness of his subsequent releases so disappointing. Happily, My Finest Work Yet takes a different approach as it was recorded live to tape by Bird together with four other musicians. Sonically, it’s warmer, jazzier and more immediate than just about anything he’s previously done while aesthetically still sounding like himself, his violin-playing and whistling intact, fleshed out only by a rhythm section and more piano than usual.

However, there’s another new wrinkle—while his lyrics are still full of metaphor and wordplay (rhyming “You were inhabited” with “I wasn’t having it” in “Olympians”), his themes are more overtly political. “Bloodless” ponders a post-election “uncivil war”, “Archipelago” notes, “We’re locked in a death grip and it’s taking its toll” and “Fallorun” confronts the “tone-deaf angry voices that are breathing in your ear.” From the myth of “Sisyphus” to the down-trodden populace of “Don The Struggle”, both the personal and collective effects of this country’s growing divide are clearly on his mind. Fortunately, he makes stirring music out of it—rather effectively on “Manifest”, which references climate change but also impermanence and awareness of one’s surroundings, filtered through a crystalline melody that could be right out of the Great American songbook.

Bird even approaches something like catharsis on rousing finale “Bellevue Bridge Club” where he sings the line, “By any means necessary” over and over, vowing to change the mind of a lover, a rival or perhaps just someone apathetic. Again, ambiguous enough to be any of those three options, but expressed with conviction and the idea that something is at stake.

His finest work yet? Increasingly and against all odds, I’d say so.

“Manifest”:

“Bellevue Bridge Club”: