Andrew Bird hasn’t been shy about previewing tracks from his fifth album during his various live sets. That, and the fact that Noble Beasts opens with “Oh No” and then the previously heard “Masterswarm” and “Fitz And The Dizzyspells” along with “Natural Disaster,” “Effigy,” and “Anonanimal” later in the track list, gives the collection a familiar air even on first listen. Of course, Bird takes the songs to a different place in their studio renderings.
It’s a light and airy set, which fits well with the naturalist album art. These 14 songs feel clean: handclaps, whistles, strings plucked and bowed, his easygoing voice. The first couple of songs have a kind of mellow, but coiled feel — “Masterswarm” is just under 7 minutes long — that opens up into something more rollicking on “Fitz & Dizzyspells.” Even then, you don’t get all the guitar distortion or baroque fleshiness of Armchair Apocrypha. It’s generally a sparer sound, no matter how complex the compositions become. So, in some senses, a return to an earlier, more acoustic-powered sound. If you enjoyed Armchair’s bigger dynamics, this might be a bit of letdown at first, but you just have to pay closer attention to unpack the hooks (talons).
The spacious thing isn’t always the case: “Not A Robot, But A Ghost” rattles with busier, clattering percussion and more ominous strings. You also get some distortion affixed to it’s whirling Spanish (on Radiohead — like that last minute) sound. And “Anonanimal”‘s flourishes are flat out proggy (its drumming, post-rock, etc). The idea? More sounds enter the picture as the album wears on. The later swirl leads into the more bucolic, but sad “Natural Disaster,” which is somewhat reminiscent of Imperial-period Unrest in it’s closing bum bum bum’s. It feels like a good closing point for the record, but then come three more tunes across more than 10 minutes. Then again, “The Privateers” is fairly triumphant. Then we get two more…
So, OK, there’s a lot going on with these Noble Beasts. Even still, at 54 minutes, Noble Beast can feel a bit too shaggy. The expansiveness and slow build is appreciated, but sometimes it feels too noodling. In fact, one of the more powerful songs, “Nomenclature,” is less than three minutes, making the more top-heavy constructions feel that much more so. (There are also some tiny set pieces like the 20-second “Ouo” and the 58-second “Unfolding Fans” or the closing “On Ho!,” which all bring a sense of the operatic to the proceedings.)
Noble Beast is out 1/20 via Fat Possum. Remember, there’s also the Deluxe Edition, which pairs Noble Beast with the instrumental Useless Creatures. This PE doesn’t include that instrumental disc.