Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released.
In concert, Andrew Bird attracts intense adulation — screaming fans, mass sing-alongs, the whole bit — but his records have grown subtler over time. Always a thoughtful songwriter, prone to impeccably chosen words and pristine arrangements, Bird has still found a way to mature and open up in a long career that spans more than a dozen studio albums.
For his most recent official release, 2012's Break It Yourself, Bird crafted a sublime headphone record that was perfectly suited for contemplation and concentration. Four years later, with Are You Serious, he sets aside a few more songs for muted but memorable ruminations on love and chemistry; this is, after all, his first album since getting married and having a baby, and "Chemical Switches" and "Saints Preservus" possess the tender gravity to show for it.
But even in the slowest songs on Are You Serious, Bird's approach still includes a few key leavening agents, from springy strings to whistling so deft he was once hired to ghost-whistle for a character in a Muppets movie. That tendency helps give "Chemical Switches," an otherwise somber take on the unseen forces of science, the kind of soft lightness to which Bird is ideally suited.
Elsewhere, though, Bird's approach can be downright peppy, even forceful. "Puma" feels downright thunderous — though, this being Andrew Bird, it's the most intricately composed thunder ever — while "Left Handed Kisses" brings in Fiona Apple for a thorny duet. In the Paul Simon-esque "The New St. Jude," darkness and light coexist in the same playful line: "Ever since I gave up hope, I've been feeling so much better." (See also this doozy, which opens "Valleys Of The Youth": "Do you need a reason we should commit treason / and bring into this world a son?")
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. Instead, though, his writing keeps sounding warmer, sweeter, more thoughtful and approachable, while continuing to land lines that stick with you for days.