The title to Andrew Bird‘s newest record is as much a challenge to entry as it is a question — Are You Serious omits the question mark when written in order to ask an even larger question: Are you ready to face the whimsical whistler’s most intensive release yet? On Monday night at the Electric Factory, Bird asked the tough questions of both himself and the assembled audience, and perhaps the answers won’t be easily forthcoming.
Playing a setlist primarily composed of Serious material, he wowed fans one slowly swelling song after another through the night. Bird got the night started in the same way that Serious does—the rollicking, guitar-led noir of “Capsized,” a great introduction to the new cuts. As more of a casual fan, it’s been hard to decypher what of Bird’s discography is necessary listening, but after seeing most of Serious performed before me on Monday night, it’s apparent even to me that these are home runs, instant classics amidst a career already filled with those.
Hailed as an multi-instrumentalist and looping master, I was curious to see how Bird’s skillset stacked up against some of my favorite artists who use the same techniques, such as Reggie Watts and Kishi Bashi. Andrew Bird’s looping is at its best when it lays the groundwork for bigger and better things, and at its worst when it finds itself needing to pinch hit where his usually intelligent songwriting falls short. The audience and myself were treated to a bit of both, with at least two separate instances where some of the more intricate loops blew up in Bird’s face, or even failed to launch. It was apparent that he was frazzled after the second occurrence, but he soldiered on, never stopping long enough to let the audience get dragged down by any individual shortcoming.
Seriously, all-in-all it was a fantastic night, full of classics new and old. 2012’s delicately beautiful “Pulaski at Night” is a fan favorite, and placing it near the end of the set had the audience choking up and swaying along to intricate violin solos. In lieu of a massive encore, Bird flipped the script and came back on stage to a single, cozying up with his guitarist and another member of his band to perform two more tracks intimately before bowing and exiting for the night. Not much for banter, Bird’s only real interaction with the crowd was before the encore, thanking them for being there, and encountering the new material in a live setting.
As NPR Music said about Serious, “Given Bird’s classical training and devotion to precision, his work has always had at least the potential to become bloodless and pale — the work of a perfectionist who agonizes over every note, only to let his busy brain mute his own beating heart.” It’s good to let this in. If the past few years of intensely personal releases from artists like Sufjan Stevens and Kendrick Lamar have taught me, sometimes it’s best to meet someone at their very core. Seriously.
Andrew Bird, Boogarins, Electric Factory, The Electric Factory