Photo captionSinger-songwriter-instrumentalist Andrew Bird’s ‘Break it Yourself’ proves the musician is only improving with age.[/media-credit]

Andrew Bird is nearly 40 and has been a professional musician for almost 20 years. His career has not been riddled with hiatuses, endless side projects or significant drama of any kind. He has never gone more than three years without releasing an album. With every release he pushes his musical abilities a little further while keeping certain patent sounds, creating one solid record after another. Break it Yourself is strong for all the reasons that Bird’s other releases have been, yet it stands out because Bird’s style is not just aging, but maturing, along with him.

To the relief of his current fans, Break It Yourself still features the carefully constructed violin melodies of early albums. Whistling solos abound as well. Much as he did in his last album, Bird fluctuates between familiar sounding tracks and adventures away from his zone of comfort.

As such, Break It Yourself can only fully be enjoyed by the intent listener. Pulling apart the layered sounds, witnessing the seamless transition between ideas and analyzing Bird’s clever lyrics are all part of the experience. While his songs are accessible to the casual listener as well, dedicated listening reveals the thought present in each track.

“Desperation Breeds” leads off the album with the unusual violin work found in earlier Bird tracks. Occasionally, however, it goes on tangents, experimenting with less familiar sounds. “Danse Carribe” starts in familiar territory again but goes into a melody more at home on Paul Simon’s Graceland, and then into a Celtic-sounding period of violin riffing. Such fluctuation between familiarity and experimentation is found throughout Break It Yourself.

Naturally, not every track hits the mark. Yet, in the greater context of the album, each track has its place. While not as moving, even weaker tracks still feel as though they belong.

Through it all, however, Bird manages to tie everything together and keep it in one piece. Even with tracks going off in unexpected directions, sometimes with less success than others, there is an undeniable coherence to Break It Yourself, stronger than any album Bird has made before.

Like many musicians, Bird’s voice has started to lose some of its power with his age. This shouldn’t be seen as a detriment to his music, however. From the beginning of the album, there are the occasional instances where Bird’s voice sounds hollower than before, almost strained at times.

Yet it suits the sound. Many of the tracks have heavy reverberation, creating a sense of emptiness, and the sound of Bird pushing his voice past its limit just a little adds to this atmosphere. As with the rest of his music, he never pushes it too far, always using it in just the right amount.

This is the real draw of Break It Yourself. As a well-trained musician, Bird’s clever lyrics and crafty music were always out of place with younger counterparts, though it has also been a significant component of his success. Today, his words sometimes take a more serious turn, and his songwriting skills have become even stronger.

Over the course of his career, Bird has managed to find the middle ground many musicians search for. He maintains a familiar sound that keeps away few listeners, yet he has his own style that makes each song his own. Break It Yourself is his most successful effort so far. Heady, observant, witty and moving, Break It Yourself is Bird’s strongest offering to date.

4 stars out of 5