What separates My Finest Work Yet from his other albums, outside of the cheeky title, is a lack of a central theme.
Sisyphus, Anathemas and Catalonia in 1936, oh my! It’s an Andrew Bird album. The affably verbose fiddle player has made a career of Joycean prose that rivals Joanna Newsom and Aesop Rock over a smooth, if not surreal, sonic template. But the ‘10s have found the indie icon stumbling into some odd crannies. There was that Handsome Family cover album, a spate of songs recorded in canyons because…ask not for whom the quirk tolls, it tolls for thee? And a whole other swath of experiments and oddball detours. My Finest Work Yet is his first proper record since 2016’s Are You Serious and finds Bird as charming as always, but a tad lost.
What separates My Finest Work Yet from his other albums, outside of the cheeky title, is a lack of a central theme. Since his breakout Mysterious Production of Eggs, each Bird album has had a guiding principle. Armchair Apocrypha was his most indie-adjacent (filled with Sufjan Stevens cameos), Noble Beast was his most experimental, Break it Yourself his most emotional and Are You Serious his angriest. My Finest Work Yet toys with the political, but most of the rage from Are You Serious seems to have dissipated, carving the album in two. On one side you have gentle folk tunes, perfect for Bird’s next jam with Chris Thile on Live from Here while the other half delves into his strangest ramblings since Noble Beast.
Now, a Bird album is certified to be pleasant at the very least. And he seems to have indulged in his more plush instincts here. On his visit to Amoeba’s long running “What’s in My Bag?” series, he discussed his love for ‘50s country cheeseball Marty Robbins and the radiant warmth that echoed throughout his early albums. My Finest Work Yet replicates those older recording vibes, with plenty of reverb and echo on Bird’s comforting baritone. It’s a welcoming effect, but occasionally muffles Bird’s more direct lyrics, turning some of his passionate stanzas into hushed musings. Though the same layers are placed upon his violin, the result is the opposite. Early highlight “Bloodless” rides on an uneasy wall of violins that are desaturated until they resemble some of Max Richter’s tinkering. And the taffy-stretched strings on “Archipelago” give a mournful, nostalgic feeling to Bird’s ruminations.
But these are brief breaks from Bird’s norm. The rockish “Olympians” seems like Bird’s tryout for a Rocky-style montage song, but leans closely to the surreal jaunt “Puma” from his last record, and though “Don the Struggle” eventually bursts into a pub-clearing 7/8 dance, the long build is aimless prettiness. And, despite intriguing hints at unease with “Stockholm syndrome” on closer “Bellevue Bridge Club,” the musical background to the veiled threats is another The Band rehash, without the sense of raggedness which The Band commanded and Bird seems allergic too.
All of that rings the more disappointing due to the intriguing mix surrounding the boilerplate Bird. And in his defense, it’s rare that an artist this far into his career can still produce a few tracks that stand up with his classics. Yet, just like Are You Serious’ duo of “Capsized” and “Roma Fade,” My Finest Work Yet has a pair of twins that could be considered his finest work so far. The aforementioned “Bloodless” is the most obvious candidate, partially due to its hints at an eerier, more political Bird. It’s a reaction to the Trump administration, but zooms in on his dealings with North Korea. “They’re profiting from your worry/ They’re selling blanks down at the DMZ/ They’re banking on the sound and fury,” he slurs as a ghostly piano darts in and out of earshot. For such a friendly character, he transfers his fear with ease. “Bloodless” portrays the common man as an unnerved observer, watching Ted Cruz go on about bombing the Middle East until the sand glows in the dark, or the constant Kabuki that Trump and Kim Jong Un star in. “They’re peddling in their dark fictions/…And it feels like 1936 In Catalonia” he sings, referencing a failed coup that led to the Spanish civil war and the unending apocalyptic rhetoric ushered in by Fox News to keep their audience in a constant frenzy. It’s a tantalizing look at Bird possibly fully embracing the creepy clockwork motions of “Opposite Day” or “Imitosis” for an entire album.
The inverse to this is “Proxy War” (as long as you ignore the title). The upright bass in tandem with the string section remarkably resembles a stirring brass ensemble, giving a bump to the already bouncy rhythm. It’s his most embracing song since his lovely cover of “Bein’ Green,” a full-throated declaration of letting go and moving on, the best you can anyway. “You don’t have to get over her/ She don’t have to get over you” he coos before the chorus crashes in with rolling drums and a sweet as frosting line of vocal harmonies. And the pre-verse melody line that soars from the violins is somehow heavenly and earthy all at once. Like many of Bird’s finest work, it feels like the first day of spring blossoming from a room full of possessed violins.
And so Bird finds himself at a crossroads. My Finest Work Yet might, ironically, be his weakest overall album to date. But the possibilities it hints at are so tantalizing, it makes up for its prefab pleasantness.