With the end of “The O.C.,” “Grey’s Anatomy” seems poised to become television’s new hour of indie disenchantment. Remember the bad feeling you used to get when Adam Brody moped to this week’s helping of indie rock? Now you can feel the same bad feeling as patients get sliced to the melodic strains of indie pop. “Dammit,” you’ll think, “I guess I don’t like Mirah anymore.”
At first pass, Andrew Bird might seem a likely candidate for this sort of operating-table demise. His songs are palatable, pleasing, pretty and novel, without necessarily being — you know — distracting. But pay closer attention: Bird may work with consummate skill and a cool remove, but he’s far too smart and too weird for his music to be so easily dismissed.
“Armchair Apocrypha,” Andrew Bird’s seventh solo album, is delicate without being insubstantial. The melodies alternately slither and strut, pulling the listener into a world that’s sometimes charming, sometimes uneasy and never simple. He delivers lyrics like, “What was mistaken for closeness / Was just a case for mitosis” in a reedy deadpan that’s occasionally reminiscent of Rufus Wainwright, minus Wainwright’s more melodramatic mannerisms.
The album occupies the same niche as 2005’s “The Mysterious Production of Eggs”: pop music replete with virtuoso whistling and winsome violin. And yes, that is in fact a musical niche — albeit one that only Bird himself seems qualified to fill. In his able hands, what could have been self-conscious quirkiness instead feels genuine and organic.
Bird even manages to sing about the Bush administration without becoming insufferable, a distinction that few of his peers can claim. Consider Win Butler’s overwrought wailings on “Neon Bible” — “Hear the soldier groan / We’re goin’ it alone!” the Arcade Fire front man yells over a bombastic din on the track “Intervention.” In contrast, Andrew Bird’s “Scythian Empires” is a masterpiece of allusive restraint. Sure, Bird may name-drop Halliburton, but he makes the rhythm of the word work so perfectly that it’s an aesthetic marvel rather than ham-fisted angst.
In the end, the most disappointing thing about “Armchair Apocrypha” is that it yields so readily to superficial enjoyment, even once you’ve taken the time to appreciate it more thoroughly. You can tune it out. You can imagine it hearing it beneath a montage of Ellen Pompeo thinking and learning. Its unassuming scale is at once a strength and a weakness. Agreeable slips sometimes into boring, and the album rewards closer examination but doesn’t demand it. “Armchair Apocprypha” may be even lovelier and cleverer than it initially appears, but unfortunately, it’s never arresting.