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The Tender Sound of Empires Crumbling

Andrew Bird continues to prove himself as a performer of significant elegance and depth.
Andrew Bird continues to prove himself as a performer of significant elegance and depth.

Andrew Bird first surfaced in the public consciousness as yet another purveyor of old-time swing and hot-jazz music. Though odder than most of his peers, Bird once seemed unlikely to emerge as one of the most inventive and acclaimed multi-instrumentalist geniuses around. But his music quickly grew moodier and less tethered to trends — not to mention genres — as his creative output piled up.

The new Armchair Apocrypha finds Bird continuing to prove himself as a performer of significant elegance and depth, and "Scythian Empires" amply demonstrates his gifts for marrying obtuse-but-evocative imagery to uncommonly lovely arrangements. After painting a bleak picture of world events — complete with references to "black tar rains and hellfire" and useless "Halliburton attaché cases" — Bird wanders off into ancient conflicts, by association demonstrating the permanence of conflict.

As unsettling as its subject matter can be, "Scythian Empires" functions most notably as a showcase for Bird's remarkable instrumental gifts, with tenderly picked strings gathering support and strength as the song progresses. Societies may be crashing down around him, but Bird makes the destruction sound more bittersweet and beautiful than apocalyptic.

Listen to yesterday's 'Song of the Day.'

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)