Violinist and singer-songwriter Andrew Bird delved into his interior psyche with uncharacteristic candor on 2022’s Inside Problems, balancing introspection with a subdued yet lively combo of collaborators. Though it arrives a year later, his new album Outside Problems is essentially the rough draft of its predecessor: exploratory recordings where he’s improvising textures and imagining melodies. A close listen reveals refrains and motifs—or as one track has it, “Mo Teef”—that were built out on various songs on Inside Problems. Detecting the echoes requires concentration, though, not to mention intimate familiarity with the previous record. There are no lyrics, no singing apart from some incidental vocalizing, just Bird’s violin and guitar supported by Alan Hampton’s bass.

Despite its spare instrumentation, Outside Problems never feels skeletal or small. As he telegraphs in the title, Bird is looking beyond himself, literally stepping outside to record the bulk of the music in the mountains and orange groves of Ojai, a small California town located west of Santa Barbara, not too far from his home in Los Angeles. The open vistas are like an uncredited third musician, sanding off rough edges and lending warmth to the string instruments as they pluck and strum. Inviting nature into the recording sends the unmistakable message that Bird is ready to re-emerge into the world.

In a sense Outside Problems can seem as if Bird is closing a chapter, tying a bow on his pandemic experience. Simultaneously a footnote and its own beast, Outside Problems picks up a thread left hanging from Echolocations, a multi-part site-specific series where Bird recorded music inspired by a distinct environment at the point of inspiration. He completed two out of a planned five installments—the inaugural Echolocations: Canyon and 2017’s Echolocations: River—before putting the concept on the back burner, timing that roughly coincided with the onset of the pandemic and the introspective turn of Inside Problems. As on the Echolocations albums, the physical space of Outdoor Problems is palpable within the recording but Bird’s improvisations aren’t intended to be ambient and atmospheric: They hit the heart, not the head.

Album opener “Mancey” aims directly at the gut with its slithery blues. As Bird’s lead violin dances around Hampton’s swinging 12-bar groove, he sounds joyful and alive, a spirit that flows throughout the record. The circular refrain of “Festivus” recasts a maypole jig as a secular celebration of grievances, gaining momentum from Bird’s slightly distorted violin. A similarly understated humor drives the spritely “Mormon House Party,” where the joke lies in how the percolating rhythm still sounds polite and friendly. The high spirits aren’t limited to numbers with upbeat tempos. There’s a sense of freedom to the lithe melodies and extended improvisations on “Epilogue,” where Bird’s lovely, lyrical playing has a sense of ascendent grace; it’s music that feels untethered to the weight of the world.

“Tik Tok” concludes the album on a contemplative note that doesn’t quite jibe with the track’s knowing nod toward the social media app. Yet this dissonance suits the album: Lacking the considered construction of Inside Problems, Outside Problems is definitionally a footnote, a collection of sketches and explorations that will fascinate listeners who have followed Bird for years. That audience will recognize that Outside Problems is in its own way as emotionally unguarded as its predecessor: Andrew Bird freeing himself from confines of his own design.

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Andrew Bird: Outside Problems