INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Uncut APRIL 2018 - by Stephen Troussé
DAVID BYRNE: AMERICAN UTOPIA
Pop polymath delivers surreal state of the nation address.
Listen to Don't Worry About The Government from Talking Heads' 1977 debut and you could take it as a straight homage to Jonathan Richman: "I smell the pine trees and the peaches in the woods / I see the pine cones that fall by the highway." It's only gradually that the pastoral takes on sinister overtones: "I see the states, across this big nation / I see the laws made in Washington, DC / I think of the ones I consider my favourites / I think of the people that are working for me." It dawns on you that Byrne is singing from the perspective of the president, or even government itself, as a kind of anonymous, cybernetic Greek chorus. "Don't you worry about me," it lulls its anxious citizens, like HAL9000 in 2001. "I wouldn't worry about me."
The song established a signature tone of creepy naivety that has persisted through Byrne's work, from the ecstatic dread of Once In A Lifetime, through the giddy doom of Road To Nowhere, right up to the title track of the 2008 Brian Eno collaboration Everything That Happens Will Happen Today. It's at one that's all over American Utopia, which considers the state of the union with a surreal impassiveness, and reaches its apogee on Dog's Mind. It begins with portentous piano chords before building to a gospel chorus sung by government clerks, gazing out upon "a place where nothing matters / Where the wheels of progress turn / Where reality is fiction / But the dogs show no concern". Is this where the grand experiment of America winds up, wonders the album - with the citizens adrift in doggy dreams, the judiciary hungover, the media quiescent, while the presidential fiasco proceeds unchecked?
These are good questions for a great US artist like David Byrne to be pondering, but it's not immediately clear that American Utopia adds up to a great piece of work. It is at some level, like Everything That Happens, another collaboration with Brian Eno. That LP had a dated feel, but there was a great charm in hearing the massed Enoid choir once again supporting Byrne's quizzical lead. This time around the songs are based on drum tracks that Eno programmed, but he takes a backseat. It makes you wonder whether Byrne needs more active, engaged collaborators to really provoke him to greatness.
Left to his own devices,Byrne comes home to a screwball hymnal mode that, for all the lyrical left turns, can feel a little too predictable. The album begins with the twinkly chords of I Dance Like This, an uncanny Philip K Dick vision of the day after the end of the world: "A fitness consultant / In the negative zone / Wandering the city / Looking for home." The chorus is a jarring intrusion, like the song is being given ECT, but it feels arbitrary, the result of an algorithmic decision, rather than anything dramatically disturbed.
Gasoline And Dirty Streets is better, entering with synthetic sitar and slapback bass, backed with eerie sax and harmonica, one of a number of tracks recalling the Heads at their most polished circa Sax And Violins. It describes a battle between a woman "who is royalty" and "a man who would be king". Like much of the LP it feels overdetermined by recent US politics. At its worst,on Every Day Is A Miracle, this leads to childlike, slightly pious fables that feel like collaborations between Dr Seuss and Kafka.
If you don't much care for green eggs and ham, though, the two sides of the LP end with a couple of the best songs of Byrne's storied career. This Is That is a yearning tribute to the power of music, sung over synthetic Chinese zither, which acquiesces to the clichés we use to describe "that moment when the melody ends and the rhythm kicks in": "That's when I call you up, that's when my river overflows," Byrne sings, falling back, unapologetically, on old soul tropes of transcendence.
The final Here is another track credited to Byrne and Daniel Lopatin, better known as electronic auteur Oneohtrix Point Never, who came onboard the project late in the day. Over roiling drones and a rhythm track reminiscent of Japan circa Tin Drum, Byrne describes some unnamed territory: "Here is an area of great confusion / Here is a section that's extremely precise / And here is an area that needs attention / Here's the connection with the opposite side." Maybe thanks to Lopatin's involvement, it strikes a new, subtler, deeper note on the record. But once again it's reminiscent of early Talking Heads - in this case The Big Country from 1978's More Songs About Buildings And Food, with its alienated airplane passenger, surveying the flyover counties: "Then we come to the farmlands, and the undeveloped areas / And I have learned how these things work together." Back then Byrne sang, "I wouldn't live there if you paid me." This time round he yearns for the making rather than the unmaking of sense, reconciliation, intimacy and the acceptance of the here and now. Maybe,he suggests, this humble, pragmatic ideal is the real American Utopia.
1 American Utopia 2 I Dance 3 Gasoline And Dirty Sheets 4 Every Day Is A Miracle 5 Dog's Mind 6 This Is That 7 It's Not Dark Up Here 8 Bullet 9 Doing The Right Thing 10 Everybody's Coming To My House 11 Here
Produced by David Byrne, Rodaidh McDonald and Patrick Dillett
Based on original tracks by Brian Eno
Recorded in New York and London
Personnel includes David Byrne (vocals, guitar), Brian Eno (drum programming, vocals, guitar), Daniel Lopatin (keys, textures, drums), Jack Peñate (drums, keys, bass)
Q&A: DAVID BYRNE MAKING SENSE
When did it stop being a Byrne/Eno collaboration and start being a David Byrne record?
With the earlier record Brian had fairly full instrumental tracks done. With this one he mainly had drum programs fed through an algorithm that he and a friend had made. Writing over these, the songs came quickly and I proceeded to add more players and instruments and shape the tracks as I felt the songs themselves were dictating. Around that point, Brian offered that it had become my record.
You seem very concerned with the state of American politics - is that an accurate reading?
These songs were written two years ago, so they are not a reaction to The Donald, but to the world that gave birth to him. I believe we are following a path that was begun in the '80s. Obama may have been a stopgap, but the juggernaut rolled on. Trump is a symptom of that... Fox, Reagan and many others created a place for him.
You have been exploring reasons to be cheerful on your website. Do you just not see the point in protest songs or do you have bigger fish to fry?
Protest songs unify a community, to help create solidarity,but they don't change minds. Movies, TV shows and novels might do that, though. A soap opera is changing Indian attitudes about women, a game show is helping with corruption in Africa. That said, my favourite protest song in recent years was Janelle Monáe's Hell You Talmbout.