Andrew Bird shelves the intricate alterno-pop vibe of this year’s earlier Break It Yourself for something rootsier, and more real here — delving into Celtic forms, Americana, bluegrass, country and gospel to construct a quieter, more emotionally resonant companion piece.
Hands of Glory, due October 30, 2012, was likewise recorded in an echoing, haint-filled barn, around a lone microphone, but this time there is an oaken, rural intimacy. You’ll find hints of those homey, age-old recordings from the Carter Family, and direct references to the next-gen murder ballad fascinations of the Handsome Family.
Bird opens with the funereal lament “Three White Horses,” a song that seems to relish its own churning darkness. The track is dimly anchored in the gospel of revelations, and full of just as much white-knuckled portent. Importantly, Bird doesn’t dismiss the ghosts that surround endings. No, he runs right toward their howling emptiness. Whether that’s to try to beat them back, or to join them, I still can’t say — even after countless listens.
“When That Helicopter Comes” shambles along with an adroit looseness that Sam Phillips captured so well in those old Sun sides, but Bird isn’t singing about girls and cars like Elvis or Harmonica Frank. Instead, he’s surrounded by these swooping, very modern intrusions — prying eyes, and weird paranoia, and ultimately a still-growing dread that washes past the song’s own musical accompaniment. “Spirograph,” intense and dramatic, sounds like a country song swimming up from the bottom of a brown bottle — with no artifice, with no sense of trying to cross over to anything other than a hoped-for salvation.
It’s not until “Railroad Bill” — a skipping, bluegrassy front-porch picker — that we get some sense of the arms-akimbo, happy-go-lucky quirkiness that has always made up the other side of Bird’s prodigious talent. “Something Biblical” finds him plucking with an bold insistency, and then abruptly swooning on the violin, perfectly echoing the juxtaposition of a desolate town’s barely lingering dreams.
“If I Needed You,” a leap-to-grace number from Townes Van Zandt, dives deeper into this old-time reverie, and it’s almost like stumbling across a close-sung pre-war 78 and a still-working turntable — so enveloping are the atmospherics. The gently swaying, largely instrumental “Orpheo” is somehow as soothing as it is deeply sad. That sense of shattering loss continues through most of the closing “Beyond the Valley of the Three White Horses,” which trembles with a sweeping despair until it too concedes everything for a resilient but lonesome reprise of Hands of Glory’s opening track.
In another time, say on 2009’s Noble Beast, Bird might have put it all in a bow right about then, offering his once-patented whistle as he trundled off. Instead, he lets this — all of this — speak for itself, creating a roiling sense of mystery, symmetry and intrigue about Hands of Glory.
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