Andrew Bird has always been a restless musician, hopping frantically from genre to genre. In recent years though, his dilettantish dabbling in everything from swing jazz to folk rock has been given a certain unity by his reliable ability to knock out a great tune. He has consistently been making pop music, albeit pop music which continually borrows ideas and sounds from the most unlikely places. Even if you're listening, slightly puzzled, to another Spanish guitar solo or a violin based passage inspired by contemporary classical music, you know that there's something catchy around the corner. Bird has, in other words, always checked himself when it seems like his magpie urges might lead into self-indulgence. Until now, at least: Useless Creatures represents something of a U-turn, a break from this self-imposed discipline. It's a mostly instrumental, distinctly inaccessible, and defiantly un-pop album which sees him determinedly following his muse down whichever strange side streets and back alleys it leads him.
Bird has described it as an 'ambient experimental record', which is half right: it's certainly experimental, but it's hard to describe an album as ambient when it owes more to Konono No.1 than it does to Brian Eno. Only one song here sounds like Eno: 'The Barn Loops', a ten minute piece during which Bird's violin is looped and distorted in all sorts of odds ways, is clearly influenced by the enchantingly alien sonic landscapes found on the former Roxy Music member's later work. Elsewhere Bird toys with contemporary West African music, minimalism, and all sorts of other musical traditions. One can hear the influence of Konono during 'Hot Math', which sees Bird playing with the African band's heavily rhythmic, percussion dominated sound. During 'Nyatini' perky, upbeat afropop insouciantly swans around over the top of an insistent percussive pulse; it sounds a bit like The Ruby Suns jamming over the top of Steve Reich's Music For 18 Musicians, and is every bit as odd as that suggests. At other moments, the album nods to chamber music and the stranger works of Messiaen. It's certainly eclectic. Perhaps too eclectic, however: shorn of the pop melodies which have given a coherent feel to his earlier work, Useless Creatures sounds a little aimless and directionless. It barely feels like an album at all, in the sense of being a coherent sonic entity best listened to from start to finish. It sounds like an odds and ends collection.
The album's other problem is that it doesn't play to Bird's greatest strengths. He's a great singer and a gifted lyricist capable of concocting weirdly wonderful multisyllabic rhymes and conjuring memorable metaphors. Aside from the odd moment of wordless sighing, and some extended passages of his notoriously excellent whistling, we don't get hear much of Bird as a vocalist. Sure, he's also an excellent violinist, a talented guitarist, and probably a million other things besides, but the vocals and lyrics have always been a big selling point of Andrew Bird albums. Indeed, Useless Creatures' press release opens with a quote extolling his virtues in those areas. One is left with the feeling that, while this release has its moments and is consistently interesting, it is missing something. It is always possible that, with a greater sense of purpose and direction, Bird could concoct a more impressive instrumental album, but in the meantime (speaking as a huge fan of much of his earlier work) I'd like him to bring the vocals and the pop sensibility back, please.