There's an obvious passion behind Andrew Bird's Armchair Apocrypha, but the songs themselves could come from a post-passionate universe, a place where rueful reflection has become the baseline emotion. Bird—who created Armchair in close collaboration with experimental electronic musician Martin Dosh—is an inventive instrumentalist, but here, he wisely leans on the most powerful instruments at his disposal: a voice that can shift from wry observation to a Damien Rice-like sweep, and whistling skills that he often lets drift in the back of songs, almost as a reminder of something larger, and not necessarily benevolent, just out of view.
There's certainly something haunting the album-opening "Fiery Crash," a slow-building song that piles on images of "Lou Dobbs on CNN" and "forces twisting your faith into superstition" before concluding that a fiery crash is "just a formality," evoking the apocalypse that the album's title just barely avoids. From there, Bird spends much of the album mapping out the territory of a world gone wrong, whether from the hegemony of corporate-dictated pop culture ("Plasticities") or the collapse of Middle Eastern misadventures past and present ("Scythian Empires"). The songs twist the dream-logic lyrics into shape. Who knows what the "Thank God it's fatal" chorus of "Heretics" means, but it sticks in the head as doggedly as "SexyBack."
That's part of the beauty of Armchair Apocrypha. Over his past few albums, Bird has developed a finesse for off-kilter pop that takes mortality, confusion, and unexpected realizations as its subject, shaping them all into songs that are catchier, by their own terms, than most of Top 40 radio. They cast a reflection of the world around us that's simultaneously beautiful, unsettling, and oddly familiar.