A couple of years ago, my significant other, Cassie, (to whom I am now engaged) was kind enough to indulge my admittedly silly birthday craving for inefficient old technology by gifting me a beautiful vintage Royal typewriter. It was an excellent gift that I love dearly, but like the hardcopy books I continue to horde, more modern advances have infringed upon those technologies’ relevance and nearly rendered them obsolete to most people.
And despite my love for science fiction and the popular trend toward employing new technologies, there’s something in my heart (and many others’) that simply won’t let go of the old ways. In fact, “the old ways” seem to have become something of a theme on this blog in the last few months.
So, after hearing at length the merits of listening to music via vinyl records (courtesy of my father, friends, and an interview with Nick Waterhouse), I finally convinced myself it was time to give LP’s a spin and expand my collection of old technology, accusations of hipsterdom be damned. A Christmas gift of the patient and indulgent variety, I received last year a modern, automated record player and one album: Andrew Bird’s newest, Hands of Glory.
I’ve been a fan of Andrew Bird for a long time, but always from a distance. For those that don’t know him, he is an indie singer/songwriter who is most famous for three things: his violin skills, his whistling skills, and his ability to create extremely complex music and lyric concoctions. It’s this last bit that can make it difficult to get into Andrew Bird and why although he is often regarded by critics as a superstar, he has yet to achieve broad popularity.
It takes work to appreciate Bird. His technical prowess and lyrical complexity are infinitely appealing, and also daunting. But once you put in the time, his stories and sounds reveal depths of artistry that make you feel like you’re a part of something special; part of a collaborative creative process. He’s the kind of musician that challenges you to really listen and understand not just what he has to say, but what it means to you. And though I love many of his songs dearly, Bird’s albums as whole works have largely failed to connect with me. Until Hands of Glory.
Back to the record player. It’s winter and Christmas has past. It’s snowing outside and the sun’s gone down. I decide it’s the perfect time to hear what Bird’s been up to. I connect the wires, press a button, and set the record spinning. Moments later my speakers crackle. Strings are plucked, lyrics are sung, and I am transported to somewhere warm and inviting and pure.
Like Nick Waterhouse, Bird infuses vintage sounds with youthful energy. Simple acoustic renditions of old Appalachian-style standards flow into Bird’s original songs, all recorded around a single microphone and performed by excellent talent. You get the sense that you are among friends late at night, sipping a drink and quietly enjoying an impromptu summer jam session. The meandering collection of songs, which at turns celebrates love and ruminates on death, culminates in a nine-minute track that ties the whole experience together. In “Beyond the Valley of the Three White Horses,” Bird crafts a hypnotic, expansive soundscape and is content to let the listener’s imagination wander and reflect.
Though the trip is at times short and melancholy, it is relentlessly beautiful. This is, to me, a nearly perfect album. With Hands of Glory, Andrew Bird has distilled the most critical elements of his talent and experience and convinced me in the process that he is more magician than musician. I couldn’t imagine a more appropriate performer with which to initiate my record-collecting journey.