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Elyse DurhamJuly 21, 2022
Andrew Bird (Wikimedia Commons)Andrew Bird (Wikimedia Commons)

It’s hard to know where to turn when faced with tragedy. Some of us, after atrocities like the mass shootings in Uvalde and Highland Park, pour our grief into care for others, volunteering and donating to relief efforts. Some of us turn to activism and righteous anger. Others, unable (or unwilling) to acknowledge that the world is full of horrors, turn to conspiracy theories and denial in an attempt to wish all the suffering away. Andrew Bird turns to his violin; and on his latest album, “Inside Problems,” he takes a hard look at the ills of contemporary America and wonders how on earth we got here.

Media coverage of Bird tends to focus on his musicianship, and rightly so. The veteran indie rocker often springs from violin to guitar to glockenspiel to whistling within the span of a single song. Thanks to Bird’s classical training, this amalgamation never feels campy or gimmicky. His instruments meld into a seamless whole, becoming natural extensions of his warbling tenor. Bird’s virtuosity and good humor have served him well; he has played everywhere from enormous festival stages to late-night television, from the TEDTalk Conference to Carnegie Hall.

On his new album, Andrew Bird takes a hard look at the ills of contemporary America and wonders how on earth we got here.

What’s less often discussed are Bird’s lyrics—probably because, for the first 20 years of his career, his lyrics were as impenetrable as they were imaginative. Though singer-songwriters tend to wear their hearts on their sleeves, Bird prized obscure literary references and scientific motifs over personal stories. Instead of love songs, he wrote about the blindness of cave-dwelling animals. Instead of singing about desire, Bird demystified human reproduction: “You’re what happens when two substances collide,” he sang on “The Mysterious Production of Eggs” (2005). There was something disarming about these early works. Bird’s playful arrangements often cloaked troubling subject matter. Even a cheerful song could turn out to be about the apocalypse.

All this changed in 2016 with the release of Bird’s ninth album, “Are You Serious.” Suddenly, the Grammy-nominated artist had exchanged environmental arcana for more domestic topics like heartbreak and parenthood. The reason was simple. Bird had fallen in love, gotten married and become a father—experiences that he insists expanded his artistic instincts rather than limiting them. “Young people think the romance is over when you settle down,” he told The New Yorker in a video interview. For him, nothing could be further from the truth. “It’s just beginning,” he said, shaking his head, looking a little dazed.

The central theme of “Inside Problems” is the conflict at every level of the human experience.

“Inside Problems”reflects a new stage in Bird’s artistic trajectory. In 11 searing but tender tracks, the album combines Bird’s early musical inventiveness, the vulnerability of his more recent albums and a new sense of urgency—a desperation that somehow avoids despair.

The central theme of “Inside Problems” is the conflict at every level of the human experience—among political parties, between romantic partners and between warring halves of the psyche. “Atomized,” which borrows a melody from Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, asks whether social media and its algorithms have strengthened or splintered our society—and our very selves. “They’re gonna try to get a rise to unseat you,” he sings. “They’ll demagnetize your poles…so now you’re atomized, unwhole.” “Eight” wistfully numbers the many ways humans make themselves—and each other—miserable (“One just reached for her gun/ Two’s slumped in the corner/ Three is making a plea for someone to adore her”). In “Fixed Positions,” Bird uneasily observes the way our opinions ossify as we age (“You know there really isn’t much preventing/ The way you see the world cementing”). One gets the sense that the singer-songwriter is shaking his head at the state of the world while pondering his own culpability in its woes.

Bird is no stranger to cultural commentary; in the past, he has written about everything from climate catastrophe to the absurdity of standardized testing, albeit with his trademark subtlety. But during the Trump era, his language acquired a new sharpness. “My Finest Work Yet” (2019) lamented Trump’s outsized influence and wondered how “such an abomination/ Could be the man of the year.” On “Bloodless,” Bird painted a dark picture of America, warning that we are engaged in “an uncivil war” that is “bloodless/ For now.” These lyrics were unsettling when they first appeared in 2019, and now, in a post-January 6th America, they’re downright eerie. By pointing to the inevitable approach of bloodshed, Bird all but predicted the Capitol riot.

Most stirring of all is the album’s title track, on which Bird marvels at the simple mystery of being alive.

“Inside Problems”visits similar territory, this time with an increased sense of bewilderment. Stop ’n Shop” examines MAGA’s militant imagery (“Thought the wall was a gun/ And that the gun was a flag/ And that the flag was a truck/ And that the truck was a mighty bird of prey”). During a recent live performance on Instagram, Bird explained that the song “asks the question of why we, as Americans, sometimes look to symbols like guns, walls, and trucks for our identity, and asks what’s missing in our lives that makes us need to do that.”

If all of this sounds a little heavy for an indie pop song, give “Stop ’n Shop”—or, for that matter, any song on “Inside Problems”—a listen, and you might be surprised by how joyful it feels. By joining heavy themes to buoyant and even whimsical musical stylings, Bird accomplishes a sort of alchemy, making the bad news easier to bear and the good news—news about love, about the resiliency of family and the possibility of peace—shine all the brighter.

And there is good news here, tucked in amid all the observations of suffering. Bird has said that he wrote the album closer, “Never Fall Apart,” in an attempt to answer his own questions about what’s missing in America. “Oh, dear friend, won’t you speak to me,” he intones in a Dylanesque lilt, “and I will listen.” The song’s chorus extolls the power of love to transform and to create bonds that will “never fall apart.” Bird seems to be wondering if people rush to extremist ideologies in search of a sense of belonging.

Most stirring of all is the album’s title track, on which Bird marvels at the simple mystery of being alive. “Every inch of us [is] a walking miracle,” he sings. It’s hard to believe that this is the same man who once described us all as “what happens when two substances collide.”

What prompted this turn from world-weariness to wonder? We can only speculate, but one suspects Bird’s transition to family life may hold the answer. Perhaps Bird himself is the strongest testament to love’s transformative power.

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