Andrew Bird is not a new face to folk music. He and his signature whistle have written songs that have been mellow, quiet, violent, troubled, uplifting and almost every other quality one could ascribe to music. But now, for the first time, they are raw.
Bird’s latest project is an attempt to capture what is essential to music. He rejects the computer-produced backing and vocal layering and pitch correction of the Top 100. Instead, for his newest album, he gets his band together, they stand around a single microphone in the barn in his backyard, and they sing.
The product of this is Hands of Glory, released on October 30 as a companion to Bird’s album Break It Yourself, which was released in May. Break It Yourself was met with immense success, reaching number 10 in the US charts and receiving consistent praise from critics. It is a lighthearted, easily likeable album that showcases the full development of Andrew Bird’s sound over the past 10 years and the direction in which he is currently progressing with his music.
Hands of Glory, then, is Andrew Bird’s dark, existentially-crisised alter ego.
It is a different side of Andrew Bird. Ghostly and ominous, he strips his already lo-fi folk music even further, exposing only the essential. The album sounds real. This is the kind of music meant to be felt, not heard.
“Three White Horses,” the opening track of the album, is a prophetic musing on death disguised behind Bird’s sweet folk vocals and twangy acoustic instruments. This becomes the prevailing tone of the album: somber, thoughtful reflections cast against the timbre of folksy instrumentals and harmonies.
Bird breaks from his darker reflections midway through the eight-track EP with “Spirograph” followed by his own take on the classic country ballad “Railroad Bill,” two lighthearted tracks that serve as a reminder of Bird’s roots as a folk singer. But these two tracks are sandwiched by echoes of Bird’s soul, manifest through melody.
“Orpheo” is a slow, acoustic self-criticism of “Orpheo Looks Back,” a track from Break It Yourself. In “Hands,” Andrew Bird is looking back on his own music career and the progression of indie-folk music as a whole, exploring what defines the genre alongside what defines him.
In stepping away from studio production and the grue of the music business, Hands of Glory presents a critical reflection on a business in which artists are milked for chart-topping singles and industry executives care more about catchiness and marketability than the art within a song.
Hands of Glory is being released as a “companion piece” to Break It Yourself, but the album holds up well on its own. It is not an experimental piece, but it is not intended as one. It is a conscious disconnect from Andrew Bird’s style — a reflection on his own growth as an artist. He resurfaces his folk roots and influences, which, though they certainly never disappeared from his music, may have become clouded by success and industry pressure. This album is raw, unfiltered Andrew Bird reclaiming and reaffirming his beginnings.
The album is not his best, most cutting-edge work. But it is not meant to be. Andrew Bird wrote this album for Andrew Bird. It is a reflection and a summation of a musical career and the whole tradition of a genre. Its soft, mellow tracks carry a darker undertone, but overall, Bird has produced an album that stands on its own against his diverse discography.
The album’s closing track, “Beyond the Valley of the Three White Horses,” recalls the opening, and leaves the listener with a nine-minute insight into the artist, wandering off with a violin solo.
Hands of Glory is something unique among Andrew Bird’s music. It is beautifully troubled and self-aware as Andrew Bird, his violin, and his whistling all embark on a journey of introspection left unresolved, as it should be.