Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Context Matters: David Byrne's American Utopia

David Byrne, photographed by Ian Gavan, prior to the announcement of American Utopia.

To fully appreciate the music of David Byrne one has to consider all the elements he delivers that are adjacent to his music. Byrne’s holistic approach asks his audience to participate in his constituent parts, be they music, lyrics, liner notes, cover art, design or concerts (which usually include choreography). For his new American Utopia (Nonesuch), Byrne’s first album of solo compositions since 2008, he brings all of these aforementioned elements to bear akin to Frank Zappa’s MOFO Project/Object. In other words, Byrne provides his own context to each element while elaborating on the larger concept or point that he’s trying to make. It was the case for his last record, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today (Todo Mundo) and it’s definitely the case for American Utopia. Taken separately, Byrne’s thesis adds up to some very thoughtful art.

David Byrne’s liner notes are intentionally argumentative. The essay in the CD jacket reflects his curiosity about what he calls the “perception that [the United States] might be a new way of living,” and the idea that the country was “founded as a Utopian experiment.” To make his point Byrne opens the debate by adding thirteen rhetorical questions in his essay, which he tries to answer: “Is this [album title] meant ironically? Is it a joke? . . . Were we wrong about how humans can be? Can we start over?” Then finally he admits, “I have no prescriptions or sure-fire answers . . . [and] I am unwilling to succumb entirely to despair or cynicism . . . but music helps. Music is a kind of model; it often tells us or points us toward how we can be.”

Byrne’s hand-picked reproductions make up the visual gist of his argument. As he explains in his short note called "Dreamers" on the CD insert, Byrne favours the artwork of Purvis Young, the Miami-based, self-taught artist who died in 2010. For Byrne, Young’s paintings, that focus on people in their work instead of places or structures, fit his concept. As Byrne admits, “This is exactly what this record is about.” Byrne provides a visual representation of Young’s beautiful painting called Pregnant Women, which makes up half the insert.

Byrne’s American Utopia tour is currently on the road in Canada and the United States, with stops this summer in Europe. To get a sense of the wireless band that will be choreographed to move with the lead singer, here’s a peek of Byrne’s concert presentation from The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, with the group performing “Everybody’s Coming to My House.” Byrne’s set list will include songs from his back catalogue, especially some tunes from his work with Talking Heads, no doubt re-imagined for this tour. Movement and lighting will be a very important part of Byrne’s presentation (which is choreographed by Annie-B Parson). The stage will be without sets, amps or risers, and the 12-member group will all be wearing matching grey Kenzo suits, performing barefoot.

Ten tracks grace the new album, eight of which were co-composed with Brian Eno, whose creative association with David Byrne goes back some 40 years, when Eno produced the excellent sophomore album by Talking Heads, More Songs About Buildings And Food (Sire). The results are mixed, but the new record is as good as anything the pair has released over the past decades. Upon first listen, when NPR put the album up on their website, I wasn’t that impressed. The music is drum-heavy, often dulling the senses rather than stimulating them. That said, after listening at a lower volume, reading the liner notes and looking at the images, the songs began to open up Byrne’s “Utopian” vision.

The opening track, “I Dance Like This,” is a wry nostalgic trip from the piano chords of Tin Pan Alley to the heavy disco beat of New York’s historic Studio 54. Dance is an important element in all of Byrne’s music and this track sets the earthy tone of the whole album. Meanwhile, “Gasoline and Dirty Sheets,” followed by track 3, “Every Day Is A Miracle,” are two back-to-back songs that celebrate the working class by placing intrinsic value in the everyday experience. Clearly the American Utopia is something ordinary and achievable in Byrne’s world.

“Dog’s Mind” is pure political commentary with references to POTUS 45 and the confusion he projects that Byrne mirrors as “reality is fiction” with people treated like “dogs in a paradise theme park all our own.” It’s effective imagery. On the other hand, “This Is That,” with its clever refrain, offers some peaceful contrast. It’s one of two songs Byrne composed with Daniel Lopatin, an American composer with a particular flair for creating ambient sounds. This track, which sounds like a mash-up of Byrne and David Sylvian, actually stands out as one of the more interesting works on this album. I really like the blend of drums and keyboards on this and the closer, “Here,” which is Byrne’s closing argument, as it were. Byrne concludes, “Raise your eyes to one who loves you / … It is safe right where you are.”

Other highlights include the lush and textured string arrangements on “Doing the Right Thing” and Byrne’s now-identifiable style of songwriting on “Everybody’s Coming To My House”. The track’s pulsating beat encapsulates the feel of the whole record that didn’t quite impress me until I had the proper context.

John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, and musician. He's the author of Frank Zappa FAQ: All That's Left To Know About The Father of Invention (Backbeat Books).

No comments:

Post a Comment