11/12/2012 06:53 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Stereo IQ Guide to Andrew Bird's Hands of Glory

By Gavin Matthews

A treat on any year is a new Andrew Bird album; 2012 is the lucky year of two. Hands of Glory is billed as a follow-up to Break It Yourself, already a career-defining album, but the standalone effort surpasses its predecessor. Filled with revamped country classics, new material and continuations of experiments from Break It Yourself, Bird has picked all of the best elements from his palette of sounds and combined them expertly. The result is as much a concept album as a release, bravely tackling bluegrass and dramatic story and somehow remaining firmly mainstream. While the organization and style of Hands of Glory is not likely to appeal broadly, it is an album to rank alongside classics of any genre. StereoIQ presents the epic story of Hands of Glory, an auditory novel with no plot and the world as a character.

As an album introduction, "Three White Horses" is sombre and deep, perhaps one of the best Andrew Bird originals to date. While a melancholy introduction is hardly typical, the trick works perfectly in context. Discussing a last meeting before death, Bird calls on a bizarrely pleasant melody to break the pain of saying goodbye at death, noting how all you need is "somebody when you come to die." The meaning and lyricism are hardly joyous, but Andrew Bird employs his keen sense of blending, similar to the bluegrass theme of turning pain into easy music, and makes a splendid dance of death.

A major trend in Hands of Glory is the reinterpretation of "underground" country legends, tracks that fall outside of the radar of "country" as a genre and find a home on Poppy Mountain. More progressive bluegrass than traditional, "When That Helicopter Comes" embraces the hidden gem by the Handsome Family as if it were Bird's own. While not deviating much from the live-only version of the original, the patented Andrew Bird signature melds perfectly with an already-backwoods sound. A merger of virtuoso violin and acoustic bass produce a masterful backing to the celebration of homecoming, complete with a champagne rain and trees that "shake and scream."

Taking on an Alpha Consumer hit is a brave task, even for a musician as gifted and ready as Andrew Bird. Despite having a significant chance to flop, the song is a brilliant rework that completely recaptures the original intent. Meant to match a sunset drive across the open country or a dramatic cutscene, "Spirograph" is a sigh captured on tape. While the singer longs for an end to pains and recounts a past of hope and loss, there is an undeniably happy element to the track. Whether through Bird's airy, looped instrumentals or the sheer joy of storytelling, "Spirograph" is more poppy than it should be yet works perfectly. The image of thoughts, echoing "down waterwells," shaped like a spirograph seals the deal.

Proving that Bird was rather foolishly overlooked for the recent compilation album The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams is a brilliant cover of the folk song "Railroad Bill." While Bird keeps his experimentation in check, traces of his signature looped audio and reverb are everywhere. The track sits directly beside the efforts of Jack White, Billy Bragg, and Wilco, employing modern style and classic sound to recapture the spirit of a track otherwise passed in back porch sessions. "Railroad Bill" is a legend passed down from the South, a once true story of a particularly violent traincar outlaw who terrorized Alabama in the late 1800s. Bird puts light spin on the song, a welcome change to a typically bleak topic.

Andrew Bird translates the Appalachia sound directly into one of his new songs, "Something Biblical." A tale of a dry spell and lost love, "Something Biblical" combines easily digested Bible references (such as a 50 year flood and "apples from the Earth") and a chorus begging for water during a "dry county" drought. All the while, nothing can change, leaving the plea as little more than a dream. The message is less than subtle, a lament for the lust for things impossible to have, but Bird's control and fluidity are more than intoxicating.

Again proving his ability to make chilling versions of legendary songs, Bird channels Townes Van Zandt in his reworking of "If I Needed You." A pure love song, the track retains all of its sincere sweetness, delicately laced with Bird's gentle violin. Surprisingly, the song ends well; love is found and the final verse is bliss. Just as the entirety of Hands of Glory proves, "If I Needed You" puts Andrew Bird's mastercraft on display. Bird is a mountain man reborn.

"Orpheo" is a continuation of Bird's work on Break It Yourself, "Orpheo Looks Back." In contrast to the wild, happy jaunt of the latter track, "Orpheo" is calculated and slow. Reading like poetry and using many of the same tropes, the song is a copy of the pastoral journey style of the late 18th century. Rather than reinterpret the form, Bird pays it complete homage, producing a modern adaptation with little attempt to "modernize." The journey is one both bitter and cheerful, full of "empty buildings" and "Greek columns," decidedly subdued and lazy but infectiously gentle and accessible. The album title, just like "Orpheo," leads back to real "Hands of Glory," the mummified relic of an executed criminal -- both are haunted reminders of the past with a bizarre appeal.

Bird was not content to end a signature album without a feature always present in his music: a sprawling, lengthy composition that tells a story without words. "Beyond the Valley of the Three White Horses" is the perfect close for Hands of Glory and, like the last puzzle piece, completes the image of a deeply conceptual album. Following the opening "Three White Horses," the empty expanse of death is given a fitting soundtrack: pure bliss. With the happiness of saying goodbye and moving on, Bird recasts a typically dreadful period as one to be cherished. The salute melts into the album with ease, slowly casting off from the listener, sparking Bird's famous loops and echoing forever.

Check out the lyrics and explanations to Andrew Bird's Hands of Glory on Stereo IQ:

Andrew Bird -- "Three White Horses Lyrics"
Andrew Bird -- "When That Helicopter Comes" Lyrics
Andrew Bird -- "Spirograph" Lyrics
Andrew Bird -- "Railroad Bill" Lyrics
Andrew Bird -- "Something Biblical" Lyrics
Andrew Bird -- "If I Needed You" Lyrics
Andrew Bird -- "Orpheo" Lyrics