INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
The Times MARCH 9, 2018 - by Will Hodgkinson
DAVID BYRNE: AMERICAN UTOPIA
The former lead singer of Talking Heads focuses on the positive on his new album, American Utopia
In what is, even for David Byrne, an overwhelmingly David Byrneian gesture, the former singer of Talking Heads has been promoting his new album with a lecture tour called Reasons To Be Cheerful. Included on his list of joy are the success of city bike-sharing schemes, the profitability of wind power and Norwegian prison reform. Focus on the positive, Byrne is saying, and we can build a better world. That admirable message runs through American Utopia, an album he recently apologised about for not making it with any women. While all this conforms to prevailing ethical standards, it doesn't make for a very interesting listen.
Byrne is loved for his freewheeling oddness. This is the man who brought songs about murderous maniacs (Psycho Killer) and sperm (Creatures Of Love) into the pop arena with Talking Heads, wrote an operetta about Imelda Marcos and eschewed the usual kiss-and-tell memoir for the catchily titled Envisioning Emotional Epistemological Information, a celebration of Powerpoint. That's why it is so frustrating that American Utopia wears its oddness, which is quirky rather than cutting-edge, on its sleeve. Underneath is a humourless and hectoring tone on songs that, given the brilliance of Byrne's past material, are surprisingly forgettable.
Everyday Is A Miracle is a case in point. As Byrne's voice strains to hit the notes in a nasty cod-Caribbean chorus he tells us how we've "got to sing for our supper, love one another", and you can imagine a groovy primary school music teacher enthusiastically leading the children through this cheery ditty at an end-of-term pageant. "A cockroach might eat the Mona Lisa, the pope don't mean shit to a dog," he informs us, statements too bald and devoid of poetry to be profound.
An overwhelmingly clean production, reminiscent of the 1980s soft rockers Toto, sands over any spark Gasoline And Dirty Sheets might once have had, while Dog's Mind pictures a scene where "the press boys thank the president and he tells them what to say". At a time when so much of the press have been robustly resistant to saying what the president wants them to say, this isn't a very prescient observation.
Strangely, the best songs are hidden towards the end of the album. Doing The Right Thing has an attractive air of uncertainty accompanying Byrne's description of his own middle-class constrictions: "She picks out some arts and crafts, I'm deep into the local cuisine." Its mid-song shift from pretty ballad to electronic disco stomper comes as a great surprise, as does the jerky new wave of Everybody's Coming To My House, co-written with fellow pop cerebral Brian Eno. This is David Byrne at his best: uplifting, original, fun. Elsewhere American Utopia just sounds like David Byrne saying and doing the right thing.