"Heretics" / Andrew Bird
I forget how this song leaked into my iTunes -- I think it was on some radio station sampler ID, or maybe a cache of free MP3s I was sent for ordering tickets through TicketBastard. I'm just enough of a sap to actually listen to every track on things like that. After all, if it hadn't been for a Starbucks compilation album, I'd never have re-discovered Nick Lowe (who in turn led me to John Hiatt and Ron Sexsmith and Robyn Hitchcock and about half of the music currently on my iPod...).
Apparently I liked "Heretics" enough for it to survive several periodic iTunes purges (I'd have 10,000 songs on there if my laptop didn't have such a small hard drive). But I can't say I was gobsmacked by it; it's not like I ran off to buy all of Andrew Bird's albums. No, this song crept up on me, riff by riff, phrase by phrase. For months I would look at that lone Andrew Bird track on my iTunes list and wonder, "How does that one go?" Or it would shuffle up while I was exercising, and, baffled, I'd go into contortions to read my iPod screen. Other days, I'd hear a fragment of it in my mind, over and over, and be stumped trying to remember which song that was.
Then again, simple-minded catchiness isn't always the point, is it? Bird, who's 36, is a bit of a musical chameleon, constantly evolving from his roots as a classical violin prodigy through jazz and trad folk into indie-rock. This song comes from his 2007 album Armchair Apocrypha, which layers a host of musical influences into a dense tapestry of sound, with verbose, cryptic lyrics. His songs (I've downloaded a few now) wash over you, slip into the side door and tease your brain.
On one level, "Heretics" seems to be speaking as The Voice of His Generation, but on another level, it's tentative, riddling, unwilling to commit (come to think of it, that sums up his generation, doesn't it?) Though he begins grandly -- a long musical lead-in, building from a lone guitar riff up to a dense electronic wall of sound with a chorus of ahh-ooooohs -- it's thrown off kilter by a raga-like motif of strings, sliding around drunkenly. And then Andrew begins talk-singing in a breathy voice: "Born host through our tongues / To sing a song about it / Held our breath for too long / Till we're half sick about it." He's no major vocalist, that's for sure, but then neither was Bob Dylan; the earnest, amateur charm of Bird's voice makes it oddly persuasive.
This is no rebel statement; he sounds almost plaintive as he asks, "Tell us what we did wrong / Then you can blame us for it / Turn a clamp on our thumbs / We'll sew a doll about it." (Sew a doll? Yep, that's how the lyrics page of his fan site transcribes this. Quirky image; it combines skinny-jean geekiness with voodoo.) "We're so in doubt about it," he laments, and "How about some credit now / Where credit is due?" In the second bridge, he stops singing entirely to exclaim, "Wait just a second now / It's not all that bad / Are we not having fun?" But the question is very much a question.
There's no story, no neat three-verse-and-a-chorus design, just a string of arresting phrases -- like "You're making mountains of handkerchiefs / Where the mascara always runs" and "You know the kind of sign you hang on the door / Saying, "We'll be back." What a crack!" I feel hypnotized by the chorus: "Thank God it's fatal / Thank God it's fatal / Not shy / Not shy and fatal, not shy and fatal / Thank God." The chorus's melody, ping-ponging between two close notes, and the shifting accents of the beat -- it's almost incantatory. I forget to ask, "What is fatal? What's shy?"
"Heretics" isn't what you'd call a pub singalong; its most seductive quality is those interweaving textures, the woozy ebb and flow of its eclectic musical effects. (As Bird himself confessed in a blog written for the New York Times, "I’m really an instrumentalist who sings words and if you care to pay attention you might enjoy them.") Somehow Andrew Bird reminds me of Sufjan Stevens, whose songs I can never remember either. The brilliance of their music is never in question. And yet somehow, I don't think it'll ever touch me the way I'm touched by "I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass," "I'm Happy Just to Dance With You," or "Waterloo Sunset." That's just me...