It’s hard to know where to turn when faced with tragedy. After atrocities like the mass shootings in Uvalde and Highland Park, some of us turn our grief into caring for others, volunteering and donating to relief efforts. Some of us are turning 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 away all the suffering. Andrew Bird turns to his violin; and on his latest album, Inside Problems, he takes a close look at the ills of America today and wonders how on earth we got here.
Media coverage of Bird rightly focuses on his musicianship. The veteran indie rocker often jumps from fiddle to guitar to chimes to whistles in a single song. Thanks to Bird’s classic training, this fusion never feels cheesy or gimmicky. His instruments blend into a seamless whole, becoming natural extensions of his lilting tenor. Bird’s virtuosity and good humor served him well; He’s played everywhere from huge festival stages to late night television, from the TEDTalk conference to Carnegie Hall.
On his new album, Andrew Bird takes a close look at the ills of contemporary America and wonders how on earth we got here.
What’s less discussed are Bird’s lyrics — likely because his lyrics for the first 20 years of his career were as impenetrable as they were imaginative. Although singer-songwriters tend to wear their hearts on their sleeves, Bird valued obscure literary references and scholarly motifs over personal stories. Instead of love songs, he wrote about the blindness of cave animals. Instead of singing about desire, Bird demystified human reproduction: “You are what happens when two substances collide,” he sang in The Mysterious Production of Eggs (2005). There was something disarming about these early works. Bird’s playful arrangements often cloak disturbing themes. A happy song could also be about the apocalypse.
All that changed in 2016 with the release of Bird’s ninth album, Are You Serious. Suddenly, the Grammy-nominated artist had swapped out environmental arcana for more domestic themes like heartbreak and parenthood. The reason was simple. Bird had fallen in love, married, and become a father—experiences that he points out expanded rather than restricted his artistic instincts. “Young people think that when you settle down, the romance is over,” he said in a video interview with The New Yorker. For him, nothing could be further from the truth. “It’s just beginning,” he said, shaking his head and looking a little dazed.
The central theme of Inside Problems is conflict at all levels of human experience.
“Inner Problems”reflects a new phase in Bird’s artistic career. Across 11 searing but delicate tracks, the album combines Bird’s early musical inventiveness, the vulnerability of his more recent albums, and a new sense of urgency – a despair that somehow avoids despair.
The central theme of Inside Problems is the conflict at all levels of human experience – between political parties, between romantic partners, and between warring halves of the psyche. Borrowing a melody from Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, “Atomized” asks whether social media and its algorithms have empowered or fragmented our society – and ourselves. “They will try to get up to put you down,” he sings. “They’ll degauss your poles… so now you’re atomized, doom.” “Eight” wistfully enumerates the many ways people make themselves – and each other – miserable (“One is reaching for her gun/ Two is in the corner sacked/ Three begs someone to worship her”). In Fixed Positions, Bird watches with unease as our opinions harden as we age (“You know there is reallyn’t much preventing/The way you see the world cementing”). One gets the feeling that the singer-songwriter shakes his head at the state of the world while reflecting on his own guilt for their ailments.
Bird is no stranger to cultural commentary; In the past he has written about everything from the climate catastrophe to the absurdity of standardized testing, albeit with his trademark subtlety. But during the Trump era, his language took on a new edge. My Finest Work Yet (2019) lamented Trump’s outsized influence and wondered how “such an abomination/man of the year could become.” On “Bloodless,” Bird painted a bleak picture of America, warning that we were engaged in an “uncivil war” that was “bloodless.” These lyrics were unsettling when they first appeared in 2019, and now, in post-January 6 America, they’re downright spooky. By pointing to the inevitable nearness of bloodshed, Bird all but predicted the riot in the Capitol.
Most disturbing is the album’s title track, where Bird marvels at the simple mystery of life.
“Inner Problems”visits a similar area, this time with an increased sense of confusion. Stop ‘n Shop explores 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 “questions why, as Americans, we sometimes look to symbols like guns, walls, and trucks for our identity, and asks what’s missing from our lives, what we need.” to do.”
If this all sounds a little heavy for an indie pop song, listen to “Stop ‘n Shop” — or any other song on “Inside Problems” — and you’ll be surprised at how upbeat it feels. By blending heavy themes with lively and even whimsical musical styles, Bird pulls off a kind of alchemy that makes the bad news more bearable and the good news – news of love, of family resilience and the possibility of peace – shine all the brighter .
And here is good news embedded in all the observations of suffering. Bird has said that he wrote the album closer to Never Fall Apart to try to answer his own questions about what’s missing from America. “Oh, dear friend, won’t you talk to me,” he intones in a Dylanesque intonation, “and I’ll listen.” The song’s chorus extols the power of love to transform and create bonds that “never fall apart “. Bird seems to wonder if people rush to extremist ideologies in search of a sense of belonging.
Most disturbing is the album’s title track, where Bird marvels at the simple mystery of life. “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 caused this turn from world-weariness to wonder? We can only speculate, but one suspects that Bird’s transition to family life may be the answer. Perhaps Bird himself is the strongest proof of the transformative power of love.