"I wake up every morning and I think, maybe today I can finally crack the code," Andrew Bird says. "Maybe today I'll write the perfect song."
This is, even for a musical cipher like Bird, every bit as difficult as it sounds. "It's pretty elusive," he says. "It's not like we're following any formula like some people do, where it's like, you need to get to the chorus in the first 25 seconds."
The formula for a Bird composition would fill chalkboards with doodles and sketches, footnotes and appen-dices, interludes and reveries. A violin hero, first-chair whistler and cunning, tongue-twisting linguist, Bird also excels as a steady-handed song surgeon, with all the self-dissecting, mad-scientific curiosity of Dr. John Thackery, director of operations on Steven Soderbergh's The Knick. Given the prompt to go laparoscopic on his new album Are You Serious (Loma Vista), the cerebral Chicagoan pops his gloves. "I still am not methodical," he insists. "I don't write anthemic choruses. But at the same time I've spent more time in preproduction with the nuts and bolts of the songs, really tightening."
The resulting tracks — open-hearted but backhanded love songs paid in "50-cent words," appraises one of them, "Left Handed Kisses," a Gemini soliloquy and meta duet opposite Fiona Apple — comprise his first original full-length release since the fever year of 2011-12, which begat an LP, an EP and a tour documentary. It follows a set of Handsome Family covers and the sonic spelunking of a Utah canyon. Needless to say, Bird was ready to get back in the ring.
"I don't like to repeat myself too much," he says. "That's a big problem when you're trying to write pop songs. I try not to write songs that are going to pin me down. I don't like having to recreate the record (live). But this record was so labored over, I was kind of OK with recreating the record."
And when Apple is otherwise engaged? Simple: Bird belts out both parts of "Left Handed Kisses" himself. "It's a real mental and physical workout," he laughs. "I'm up there showing the audience how my brain works."
The song didn't start as a duet, he explains: "This happens a lot. I'll start writing from one point of view and then that internal voice that is self-critical starts to creep in there, starts to poke holes in it. I've learned to include that in the songs. It adds a whole other dimension to it."
By the end of each night, Bird hopes to have "closed the gap" between the live show and the studio recording, even if just a little. It's something he's been working on for 10 years.
"When I hear (2005's) The Mysterious Production of Eggs, I'm happy with that record and all, but the performances are just so subdued and mild sounding," he says. "Those songs are wild, just totally different live, and I'm singing my ass off. When I'm onstage, I sing for the rafters. That's really hard to do in the studio. But I try."