6: Andrew Bird – Are You Serious
Following a succession of releases that showcased a delicate, cerebral sound, as if it were emanating from a bespoke jewel box, Chicago’s own Andrew Bird cranks up the amps on his latest effort. But not to 11, just to about 5: Where once dainty fiddles and whistling dominated, comparatively brawny guitars and drums now propel a few songs. The added instrumental oomph isn’t always welcome. The opening track, “Capsized,” is a generic ‘70s-FM rocker that would sound at home on side two of a Stephen Stills album. Bird also dials back his dense word-nerd lyrics, opting for a more heartfelt, direct approach, although he still can’t resist the occasional egghead verse or two, like this one from the bouncy title cut: “Used to be willfully obtuse/Or is the word abstruse?/Semantics like a noose/Get out your dictionaries.” The new direction seems a tad tentative, giving “Are You Serious” the feel of a transitional work. But all the tinkering pays off with the profoundly moving “Valleys of the Young,” which maps out in vivid detail the perilous peaks and valleys of parenthood. It’s a sprawling, guitar-fuel rock opus worthy of Neil Young himself and it lifts this intriguing-if-flawed record to greatness.