David Byrne’s new release came along with the promise of a tour hyped as his most ambitious tour since the Talking Heads’ tour that was filmed for the live concert movie, Stop Making Sense. In fact, a CD of this new release was given to every ticket buyer. Advertised as Byrne’s first solo album in 14 years, that statement ignores the fact that he’s collaborated on numerous albums with Brian Eno, St. Vincent and Fatboy Slim in the intervening years. And, while American Utopia is officially a solo album, Byrne has written all but two songs building his own compositions on top of Eno’s electronic atmospherics. The result is an artful album that finds the artist describing what he sees on the modern landscape as the American experiment “seems on the verge of complete and utter collapse”, as he states in the liner notes.
Byrne opens his essay in American Utopia’s liner notes asking what many listeners will ask themselves, “is this meant ironically?” Byrne has always written descriptively, as if he was an alien from another planet writing a report back to their home people about what they have seen of human activity here on Earth. In this essay, he suggests that “sometimes to describe is to reveal, to see other possibilities. To ask a question is to begin the process of looking for an answer. To be descriptive is also prescriptive, in a way.” All of this explains how early songs with the Talking Heads like “Psycho Killer”, “Life During Wartime”, “Once In a Lifetime” and “Burning Down the House”, filled with images of violence, dislocation and anxiety became the party anthems for a generation attempting to make sense of their life and times. That same energy drives Byrne here.
Musically, Byrne continues his long journey of eclecticism, mixing traditional rock instrumentation with Eno’s spacey keyboard and drum programming, drawing on world music polyrhythmic choruses and his unique take on pop melodicism and vocals. The opening track juxtaposes soft piano ruminations on the verses with the hard disco pulse of the choruses where he declares “I Dance Like This.” “Gasoline and Dirty Sheets” settles in on a light, funky groove, as some of Byrne’s most memorable songs tend to do, but the lyrics paint a portrait of a world cash is king, and freedom costs too much. Themes from past works reappear, in a way, Byrne is always creating “More Songs About Buildings and Food.”
Consider “Every Day Is a Miracle,” which invites us to think like a chicken that “imagines a heaven, with full of roosters and plenty of corn, and God is a very old rooster, and eggs are like Jesus his son.” “Dog’s Mind” gives us the canine point of view, and “Bullet” describes what happens when a person is shot in a most antiseptic and emotionally distant observation. “It’s Not Dark Up Here” percolates with an energy that fits with “Speaking in Tongues”-era Talking Heads, and “Everybody’s Coming to My House” strikes a groove as the approximates the African rhythms that informed Heads’ tracks like “I Zimbra.” Both of these are high spots on American Utopia.
But it would be a real mistake to discount the more angular, contemporary art rock of “This Is That” and “Here,” two songs that Byrne wrote and played largely with Daniel Lopatin, who records his own music under the moniker Oneohtrix Point Never. These are musical works that are not as immediately accessible or pleasing as Byrne’s more pop leaning work, but the thoughtful use deconstructed sonic tones, and contrasting harmonic references, that Byrne’s lyrics turn to his most deep and philosophical.
There may be the momentary lyrical silliness, but Byrne is bringing his years of musical experimentation, including his ten studio albums and a variety of film scores from “The Last Emperor” to “Young Adam,” into conversation with American pop culture and has created another vital alternative rock classic with American Utopia.
Brian Q. Newcomb
For more of Brian Q. Newcomb’s music reviews, check out The Fire Note
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David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television