If I had to consolidate Break It Yourself down to its quintessential Andrew Bird moment, I would probably choose the bridge of “Danse Caribe”, its joyous violin and drums exclaiming Bird’s exuberance. Although it lacks his trademark whistling, “Danse Caribe” represents everything else I love about Bird’s music, exhibiting the quirkiness and sense of wonder that pervades his music. Musically, Break It Yourself is a fairly conventional Bird release, differing slightly from the darker tone of Armchair Apocrypha and the sprawl of Noble Beast, content to reside somewhere in the middle of those two albums. Lyrically, this may be one of Bird’s most personal albums, treading in matters of love in a more obvious fashion; in doing so, Break It Yourself does not feel as full of wonder as say, The Mysterious Production of Eggs, but this personal touch gives the album a bit more relatability than Bird’s usually oblique lyrical trappings.
“Eyeoneye”, the closest thing to a title track, hints at the new level of intimacy, as Bird sings about the dangers of cutting yourself off from the world: “Made yourself invulnerable, no one can break your heart so you break it yourself.” Immediately following “Eyeoneye”, “Lazy Projector” takes Bird’s story a step further, its melancholy strings and Bird’s trademark whistling undergirding the weighty declaration at the end of the track, “I can’t see the sense in us breaking up at all.” In fact, one of Break It Yourself’s main themes is loss. On “Lusitania”, Bird tells the story of the infamous sinking of the Lusitania by German U-boats in World War One, the ship standing in for his heart; while “Near Death Experience Experience” celebrates a close call: “We’ll dance like cancer survivors, like your prognosis was that you should’ve died.”
Of course, with all this heartbreak and sadness, it’s not surprising that the album is largely a down-tempo affair, relying on ambiance and simplicity to carry its message. This isn’t to say Break It Yourself lacks variety–Bird knows how to craft his albums, changing the mood just when it is needed. Such is the case with the fantastic “Orpheo Looks Back”, exploding on the heels of the reflective “Lusitania”, as it transforms Bird’s violin into a fiddle for a Celtic romp exclaiming the importance of letting go of the past. The clouds lift with the next song, “Sifters”, a gorgeous tune that finds Bird taking his own advice and moving on with his life, singing his “lullaby to leave by.” Interestingly, Bird’s hopeful tale of love lost is bracketed by songs that seemingly have very little to do with his relationship woes.
On one side is “Danse Caribe”, a song full of Bird’s trademark musical shifts and abstract lyrics, while the song that closes the album, “Hole in the Ocean Floor”, is an eight minute rumination on the devastation of the BP oil spill. Maybe that’s just how Andrew Bird does things, but I think it points to something deeper in his music: an awareness of humanity’s place in the world. Instead of getting hung up on a broken relationship, Bird turns that experience into a way to look at the rest of the world, eschewing strict individualism. With most of the music topping the charts these days ceaselessly asserting the importance of personal happiness, it’s refreshing to hear an artist close his album mourning the death of “God’s creatures.”
Break It Yourself may be less immediately accessible than Bird’s last few albums, lacking an immediate classic like “Fake Palindromes” or “Fiery Crash”, but it is truly an album, meant to be considered as a whole. In fact, its structure mirrors Bird’s own preoccupations, as he tries to find wholeness by reconciling the internal with the external. Fortunately for us, he is not the only one who benefits from the process.