The title of Andrew Bird's latest album is a bit of a lark—pun intended. It's called Noble Beast (Fat Possum Records), yet the songs are all about what it means to be human, while searching for something more. Bird is no stranger to the elusive and intangible qualities of life: his previous masterpiece, The Mysterious Production of Eggs, was all about creativity, imagination, and childlike wonder. On Beast, he again brings his signature wit and whimsy, making $10 words and complex cadences somehow sound effortless.

Bird uses rather strange building blocks—his violin and trademark whistle, drum loops, and influences ranging from Western swing and jazz to ambient soundscapes and pop—but the result is always disarmingly direct and melodic. Bird has hinted that this album is loosely inspired by traditional country and folk idioms. Indeed, these tunes are all very singable, hummable, and whistleable—easy to love, even though underneath the clear melodies are typically lush and sophisticated arrangements. In other words, Bird is doing what he has always done: making the complex sound exceedingly simple.

Bird's laid-back music puts his lyrics front and center. He tends toward wordiness and abstraction, but on repeated listens, particular ideas begin to stand out. Bird is clearly searching for meaning here, and he can't seem to keep from defining humankind in terms of relationships. In "Oh No," he laments his place among the "sociopaths," incapable of real intimacy or truth telling. In "Effigy," he mourns for "the man who spent too much time alone." "The Privateers" humorously addresses life-insurance salesmen, criticizing those who view human life as a commodity to be bought and sold.

Through it all, Bird's ...

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