It seems there is always a sort of acceptance of an artist's stability when the fifth album is displayed for the public, oftentimes displaying that artist's graduation from an extended flash-in-the-pan to a full-fledged institution, but when this time came with Chicago-based violinist Andrew Bird's Mysterious Production of Eggs, it was difficult to apply these adjectives to his career. It was not because Bird hadn't staked out his territory and proved his resilience in an industry that so quickly disposes and wears out its work force, but because over five albums, Andrew Bird has frantically, and capably, tackled different genres, giving his career over five albums the illusion of three careers.
Andrew Bird established himself as an expert within the retro-swing movement in the mid- to late-'90s with both his debut album, Thrills, and its follow-up, Oh! The Grandeur but when he released Swimming Hour, it was almost to say, "Oh what a fool I've been, backing myself into this retro-swing corner." That album mixed Memphis soul and lush pop with hints of radiating progressive folk and straight-up rock & roll, and likely destroyed, or at least completely boggled, much of the fan base he had built up, but a new direction, filled with open opportunity was set. It was as if Bird gave himself a "do-over" and debuted all over again. When he dropped both his band and his label for the introspective and beautiful Weather Systems, it was hard not to think of the album as something of an experiment. Not only did he turn away from all the new possibilities to which he had hinted with Swimming Hour, but he uncovered even more new possibilities for his musical path by truly making an album that sounded like nothing else. It was yet another kind of debut, one that truly excited fans and critics, but one that made Thrills and Oh! The Grandeur feel as ancient as the time period they mimicked, and Swimming Hour feel like an abandoned island rich with forgotten fruit, waiting to fall and rot.
It was with all of this in mind that made the coming release of Mysterious Production of Eggs both exciting and terrifying. It is an album which mines similar veins as the deepest self-exploration of Weather Systems, even making references to that album. Most obvious is the fleshed-out version of "Skin," this time with vocals and retitled "Skin Is, My." It is an album which takes some of the lush-pop, full-band feel from Swimming Hour and expands on that. Even more so, as damning as this may be to write, it is on this album that Bird seems to have found his comfort zone, his first fully realized album in concept and sound and even in the remarkably well-conceived artwork by Jay Ryan. It is his first album which sounds completely like an unfettered, consistent, and unforced journey, or rather his first album that displays these amenities so well that it enables the listener to hear his previous albums with a newer, higher standard, bringing out the previously unnoticeable, though minute, flaws of those albums.
As always, Bird has enlisted the help of drummer Kevin O'Donnell and vocalist Nora O'Connor (the remnants of Bird's backing band Bowl of Fire) throughout, as well as a few guests here and there, but as stated, Mysterious Production of Eggs does reinstate some of the full-band feel showcased on Swimming Hour. The majority of this comes from Bird's exploration of the guitar, an instrument until now he had yet to record himself playing. The most noticeable influence of this is the opening vocal track, "Sovay," which contains almost no violin adornment at all in exchange for a pair of finger-picked acoustic guitars, Rhodes, vibraphone, and drums. For the most part Mysterious Production of Eggs remains as a very laid-back affair, save the few explosive moments of tracks like "Fake Palindromes" and "Opposite Day," both ultra-compressed and urgent numbers alluding to something the Flaming Lips could have stumbled across at a practice session. Also exciting about Mysterious Production of Eggs is Bird's first hearty employ of vocal multi-tracking, an unsurprising update considering Bird's and O'Connor's amazing vocal abilities and instinctive interplay. The result is an utterly mesmerizing and magnetic album, almost unfair in how incredibly ambitious and impressively pulled off the whole thing is. Of course, the release of Mysterious Production of Eggs brings to mind the unfair question, "What could possibly come next?" before the album has had the chance to even completely sink into its own place in Andrew Bird's baffling catalog.