Even with a musician as prone to musical self-reinvention as Andrew Bird, you'd think that by the seventh album, he'd have revealed pretty much everything he has up his sleeve. And yet Bird manages to come out of left field with Armchair Apocrypha. Here, the usually self-reliant Bird reached out to a small group of Minnesota musicians, and, perhaps paradoxically, the resulting music only highlights Bird's singularities, notably his surreal — both musically and lyrically — take on Americana.
Bird's trademark sound relies heavily on the violin and whistling (yes, whistling). On Armchair Apocrypha, these two elements help form an otherworldly ambiance, compounded by Bird's soothing voice, obtuse lyrics and uncanny melodic sense. Even more than the Decemberists'Colin Meloy, he can graft lyrics like “Scythian empires, horsemen of the Russian steppes/ Scythian empires, archers of an afterthought/ Routed by some Achaeans, thwarted by the Thracians” (from “Scythian Empires”) onto melodies catchy enough for a singalong.
Elsewhere, Bird offers some of his most anthemic choruses to date on “Plasticities” and “Spare-Ohs.” Don't expect U2 or Coldplay, however: Bird prefers pizzicato violin and that forlorn whistling to big guitars and pounding keys. The closing instrumental, “Yawny and the Apocalypse,” starts with birds singing before a ghostly violin supplants them. The effect is uncommonly spooky, suggesting, at least to this listener, the dawn of nuclear winter.