Today is Andrew Bird’s 41st birthday. Not only that, he’s playing tonight in Bridgeport, CT. Which does me no good as I’ll be in PA. Sorry to miss him, but I can honor him anyway.
I’ve only seen Bird perform once—as an opening act for The New Pornographers at Electric Factory in Philadelphia, back when both were touring to support what are still my favorite albums by each: for Bird: Armchair Apocrypha from which comes today’s song.
“Dark Matter” has always been a favorite. It has such kick, with a lift off that thrills me, and it does it without much bombast or any sense that this is overstated. Though, to be honest, I’m not sure what is causing that elated feeling. Why is “dark matter” something to get such a lift out of?
It’s a liberating song, somehow. It starts with whistling that sounds a bit disconnected, like someone ambling along to no particular purpose, but then we hear the sound of a crescendo approaching and it arrives like a wave that lifts us—it’s propelled, and propels us (marked by drums and cymbals). And soon Bird is confiding to us something that might explain the feeling, or it may be a kind of disavowal: “When I was just a little boy / I threw away all of my action toys / While I became obsessed with Operation. / With hearts and minds and certain glands / You’ve got to learn to keep a steady hand / And thus began my morbid fascination.” It’s like an origin story, a way of accounting for how mysterious “dark matter” shapes one’s sense of possibility, of what is and isn’t present.
A boy throws away his action toys and becomes obsessed with a board game that tries your skill at removing little bits of molded plastic from recesses that are rimmed with metal—you touch that metal with your metal pliers, a little zap occurs. You’ve been electrocuted! Can you extract the plastic without touching? Pride in such a game, we assume, has to do with the steady hand necessary to achieve success. The task is a test of skill, of patience and timing.
The song seems to draw its energy from besting such challenges, but Bird also seems to be considering the last things, and how we’ll face death. In that context, the morbid fascination makes more sense, as does Operation. The key is going out clean.
And that’s maybe where the dark matter comes in: it’s not visible but it’s there. It has effects and these lead one to infer that it exists. The possibilities seem to be suggestive for Bird as he thinks of harnessing such energy. But it also leads to the question: “Do you wonder where the self resides / Is it in your head or between your sides?” The self, like dark matter, can only be inferred, never actually seen or located.
The “morbid fascination” seems to be with things that have explanatory power but are questionable, or maybe just theoretical. The part that really capitalizes on that idea is a statement about DNA as “a noose,” a deterministic element in a universe that needs dark matter to suggest something not wholly determinate because still speculative (like the resting place of the self).
It’s a loopy lyric wedded to an anxious, energetic song. Lines like “Just before they kick out the ladder” surge with a sense of release. If only to escape the noose of DNA, if only—to use Henry Miller’s phrase—to jump clear of the clockwork, if only to shoot rays of dark matter at anything too stolid, too undeviating. And it’s that “nau-se-ou-se-ous sort of elation” that sticks with us, for if we’re to escape our genes, or our conditioning, or our biology, or our mental habits, we need more than a steady hand, we need escape formulas, mantras, rays of dark matter.
Bird can be an oddly elliptical lyricist, and often his tunes tend to meander as well. But “Dark Matter” is propulsive, gripped by an urge to attest to skill, special energies, specific glands and secretions, a need to prove a location and a purpose for one’s chosen self.