INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Record Collector MARCH 2018 - by Daryl Easlea
DAVID BYRNE: AMERICAN UTOPIA
Yet more songs about buildings and food
Of all his surviving CBGB peers, David Byrne is the one who remains, as he was at the time, welded to art-rock. Occasionally slipping into the commercial spotlight, he has wilfully pursued his singular vision; devising, writing, and producing material that will be rightfully assessed as a "body of work" when his time comes. And, as our icons are falling left, right and centre, it truly is time to appreciate the polymath at his best: delivering those edgy, nervy little pop songs that can make you simultaneously think and dance.
It is amazing to think that American Utopia is Byrne's first solo album since 2004: in the interim, he has been busy - creating his show and collaborative album Here Lies Love with Fat Boy Slim and his winning partnership with St Vincent, Love This Giant.
Still, as with many artists who once were part of groundbreaking ensembles, Byrne's solo catalogue often struggles to emerge into the light from the work he made many decades ago with Talking Heads. Sometimes he has railed against this, but increasingly, he has been embracing the sound he once made - notably on his other significant collaboration, the 2008 reunion with one-time Heads producer Brian Eno on Everything That Happens Will Happen Today. Eno puts in a cameo here on Every Day Is A Miracle, which is David Byrne just how his audiences love him. But it's no plain sail. Album opener, We Dance Like This has the discordance of 1980's The Overload, suggesting that Byrne is not taking things easy as the years advance.
When Byrne was writing his high-period material, the US was lurching to the right. From January 1981, it was as if the entire East coast music scene pitted itself against Ronald Reagan ("Our president's crazy, did you hear what he said?", Byrne wondered in 1983); yet all of that seems smallest beer in comparison to today's White House. So, Byrne sets out with his principal skill and questions through song. As Byrne says, "These songs don't describe an imaginary or possibly impossible place but rather attempt to depict the world we live in now."
Working with youngish British producer Rodaidh McDonald among others, American Utopia explores the modern condition. Every Day Is A Miracle has a beautifully infectious chorus; it uses animal allusions to ponder about the wonder of it all and the natural order of things; and lines such as, "cockroach may eat Mona Lisa, the pope don't mean shit to a dog," are priceless. Doing The Right Thing - with its string swells and superb electronic breakdown - highlights the plight of those glued to the cutting edge. When Byrne asks, "What am I supposed to do with this?" it is not a million miles away from his "how do I work this?" of old, but there is implication of how the US has moved to being a consumer rather than a producer. With its surreal imagery and love of alliteration Dog's Mind shows how Byrne remains art-rock's Dr Seuss.
It is not enough, of course, for David Byrne to just release a record. American Utopia sits as part of his Reasons To Be Cheerful series - of "hopeful writings, photos, music and lectures." A great thirty-eight-minute exercise in economy (no song is over five minutes), American Utopia is not quite as good as we'd all really love it to be. However, its quality of thought, emotional intelligence and sense of fun is remarkable. Thank heavens pop stars like David Byrne are still here and working.