Probably all the people who've fallen in love with Andrew Bird's music because of his last two albums (2005's The Mysterious Production Of Eggs and 2007's Armchair Apocrypha) will buy Noble Beast, listen to it a few times, decide that it's just not as good as those two albums, and never listen to it again. Such is the fate of the rising-in-popularity artist who zigs when the audience expects him to zag. Except that the people who end up not liking this album won't really understand why, won't realize any zigging took place. Noble Beast isn't as good as Armchair Apocrypha, but it's going for a different thing. And this difference is responsible for why people will disappointed-ly listen to Noble Beast.
The difference?? Well, Armchair Apocrypha and to a lesser extent The Mysterious Production Of Eggs were all about the full sound a studio could provide; Armchair in particular had huge, majestic songs that crested and peaked, arrived at thrilling choruses with instruments piled all over the place. In comparison, Noble Beast focuses on extending Bird's gift for brainy wordplay and rich, patient songwriting. No other album in his career is filled with such explicitly complex and witty lyrics, offering all sorts of tongue twisters and obscure words/references. While it's true that Noble Beast has its share of songs that match Armchair's ability to be both catchy and seemingly epic--in particular, 'Anonanimal' and 'Fitz & Dizzyspells'--the majority of the tracks are given over to mid-tempo paced, mellow material that emphasize Bird's way with words and his extensive use of stringed instruments, specifically violin and acoustic guitar. It's a perfectly good album assuming you're the sort of listener who will patiently dissect the lyrics and sip the fine wine of the song structures.
In an interview with The Onion's A.V. Club a week or so ago, Bird suggested that his next album might be a 'band album', referring to the threesome he tours with. In addition, he posits that Noble Beast hearkens back to the sound of Weather Systems, his first 'solo' album, recorded during the long birthing process for The Mysterious Production Of Eggs. Weather Systems has a similar sound to Noble Beast though I wouldn't make too much of a connection since they were recorded so far apart. What I do want to connect here is that an album recorded with his touring band would be a thrilling thing given the evidence of both Noble Beast and its 'companion' disc, Useless Creatures. Only available in the deluxe edition of Noble Beast, Creatures is an all instrumental album that pushes Bird's music to its most fascinating and experimental state yet. For those not aware, Bird often employs live looping in his performances, using various electronics and stompbox pedals to create loops of guitar, violin, vocals, and his (in)famous whistling, building songs piece by piece. Useless Creatures is the most pure version of this yet. Though mostly solo, he is occasionally joined by Glenn Kotche on percussion (of Wilco fame) and Todd Sickafoose on double bass (a jazz bassist in his own right, but perhaps best known for working with Ani Difranco and on Trey Anastasio's Bar 17 album). Useless Creatures is like some strange mash up of indie rock, modern classical music, jazz, and experimental music. Bird loops and distorts his violin, whistles, and acoustic guitar in some fascinating ways here, and his solo improvisations as well as group interplay reveal him to be a potent musician in addition to the witty, intricate songwriter we've always known. Were Bird to somehow apply these kind of textures, melodies, and rhythms to the sort of songs on Noble Beast, he would really have something transcendent on his hands.
As a total package, the deluxe edition of Noble Beast that includes Useless Creatures is excellent and a must hear for fans of Bird's music. However, as a standalone entity, there's no getting around the fact that Noble Beast isn't as good as Armchair Apocrypha. It's a different kind of album, yes, but even by it's own standards Noble Beast is no masterpiece. I must stress, however, that Noble Beast is far from a let down, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to fans, particularly if they're willing to splurge for the deluxe edition with the fascinating Useless Creatures.