By: Raymond DeLuca
Not even our plasticity remains safe. Our own physiological ability to have our brain maintain its synchrony with its vessel, mutating accordingly as our behavior and environment transform, has fallen under siege. If our synapses can be manipulated by outside forces to resist bending as we bend, stimulation as we excite, injury as we bruise, then how free can we really consider ourselves? If the brain can be perverted by forces independent of the body, then what sense of individuality can any of us really hope to maintain?
The corrupting forces of materialism and capitalism have atrophied these synapses, polluted our biological makeup so as the scientifically reprogram man into a series of consumer-cash relations. Our individuality has been eroded, compromised. Encouraging to know then that we and our synapses have found a defender in Andrew Bird. “We’ll fight, we’ll fight for your music halls and dying cities” against those who will compete for our “neural walls and plasticities.” He argues for the defense of the mind from the parasite of materialism now latched upon the human condition.
This is the most common interpretation of the gem of Mr. Bird’s second album Armchair Apocryphal, “Plasticities.” He assumes the role of a crusader against the forces of profit and instantaneous self-gratification. Though, while certainly plausible, Mr. Bird may be expressing a defense of individuality against something more personal than the phantasmagoria of factory farms, Best Buys and chain restaurants that has come to hallmark the modern age. “Plasticities,” to me, reads as Mr. Bird’s assertion of his own creative identity, of the artistic plasticity of his own brain against his listeners’ attempts to impose a rational interpretation on his music. Mr Bird defends his synapses in a poetic sense, not a biological one; he challenges not the bug of materialism with “Plasticities,” but the human impulse to rationalize. I am of the opinion that Mr. Bird’s lyrics defy rational interpretation.
Listening to any of Mr. Bird’s albums, one will certainly hear a fair share about fatal shores, ancient sea slugs and cephalopods, colored with references to chemistry, astronomy and idiosyncratic historical allusions from the Lusitania to the Scythians. There exists little coherent thread or thematic vision of any of his songs on a macro level, from one to the next, and on a micro level, from their verses to their choruses. Speaking of the Scythians, the lyrics of “Scythian Empires” could not be less enigmatic: “Five day forecast bring black tar rains and hellfire, while handpicked handler’s kid gloves tear at the inseams, their Halliburton attaché cases are useless, while scotch guard Macintoshes shall be carbonized. Now they’re offering views of exiting empire, such breathtaking views of Scythian empires.” Is it a critique of the perverse corporate influence on American society, alluding to the idolatry of Apple products and Dick Cheney’s shady profiteering from the war in Iraq? Or does it suggest something about the futility of empire, admiring the breathtaking views imperial, Macedonian cities, but fully aware of the inevitable future that lies ahead - a forecast of hellfire and imperial defeat? The lyrics simply defy logical explanation; like all of Mr. Bird’s songs, his lyrics are a shade too loose to be firmly, rationally grasped.
Yet, despite this looseness, Mr. Bird’s songs are held together by something. “Scythian Empires” does indeed have a texture and a unity to it that its words would otherwise lack on paper. “Masterfade” has a simplicity to it that its lyrics about chocolate lemonade, june bugs and electrostatic rain cannot express, and the lyrical haze of “Anonanimal” about whether we are to see a sea anemone or an enemy feels somehow appropriate.
It is the plasticity of Mr. Bird’s creative identity that serves as the glue by which his songs are held together. As Mr. Bird pushes the boundaries of string instruments’ capabilities, his lyrics swirl, contort and bend in total synchrony with the acrobatics of his violin. The arrestingly gorgeous opening piano and its accompanying strings of “Scythian Empires” give the songs its texture, while the whistles of “Masterfade” bestow the piece with it its simplicity, and the occasional schizophrenic, sometimes swirling, sometimes elegiac violin on “Anonanimal” make that lyrical fog palatable. The cohesive material of Mr. Bird’s lyrics is his unique ability to have these nonsensical, nonsense words feel at one with his musical stylings. The outside, independent force of listeners’ rational interpretations is the threat to this creative unity between violin and lyrics of which he identifies and defends against on “Plasticities.”
The style of Mr. Bird as witnessed in concert seemingly defies rational explanation as he switches between violin, acoustic guitar and an electric one, while humming, wailing and whistling all the while. As an audience member, one cannot seem to grasp the deftness and artistry of such a performer. The content of his lyrics synchronize with the form of this style as they wander from the ocean deep to the cosmos; they are sung like poetry, but read like prose; they have as much grounding in history as they do science. Just as viewers cannot grasp the style of his performance, as listeners, we cannot quite grasp the content of lyrics. Form is content here, folks. Mr. Bird’s lyrics, like his musical talent, lie beyond comprehension; they are merely a vocal expression of his creative synapses as they are wildly stimulated by his violin.
Mr. Bird’s lyrics cannot stand on their own as can the poetry of Bob Dylan, Fiona Apple or Joni Mitchell for there exists daylight between these artists’ music and their lyrics, as there does with most artists. There exists no such daylight between Mr. Bird’s music and his lyrics. His lyrics are in the shadow of his violin - remove the instrument, and the words disappear. There is a fundamental inseparability shared between Mr. Bird’s music and his lyrics; only he can rationally elucidate and grasp them in the context of his artistic ability. The plasticity of Mr. Bird’s creative mind eludes rational interpretation on the part of the listener.
But then haven’t I contradicted my thesis? When I argued earlier that “Plasticities” has perhaps a broader interpretation than being a rage against materialism and reads as more of a defense of his artistic predilections - am I not guilty of imposing a rational narrative on something fundamentally irrational? Certainly. Humans bend toward order, toward pattern, toward narrative; we try to dismantle and reorganize chaos, and all of us are invited to do so with the lyrics of Mr. Bird. His lyrics beg for interpretation for they are just so bizzarre, but be aware that when we take a stab with the words of Andrew Bird, remember that we are stabbing blind, into the shadows.