LP Review: David Byrne, ‘American Utopia,’ A Surprise Gem

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“Hear my voice, hear my voice, It’s saying something and I hope you’re concentrating…” – Talking Heads, “Warning Signs” Written by David Byrne

I’ll be the first person to admit that I’m surprised I’m posting these thoughts on David Byrne’s superb new album, American Utopia. I almost started with the Monty Python line, “and now for something completely different.” It’s been a weird year. I think it was, of all people, Don Henley who once sang, “It was a pretty big year for fashion, a lousy year for rock and roll…” Lately, I was struggling to find any music that I felt merited calling attention to. The Dead Daisies are a hard rock outfit who just put out a new album, but I didn’t hear anything that jumped out at me, it was all pretty meh. The joy of doing this blog is the actual musical spelunking I get to do. I spend my evenings and weekends locked up here in the B&V lab actually listening to music.

And so frustrated by this year’s music, I started casting a wider net on the music I was looking at. I discovered that merely 2 months ago, in March, David Byrne put out his first “solo” album in fourteen years. And while it’s true, his last actual solo album was 2004’s Grown Backward, it’s not like Byrne hasn’t been active with collaborations and scores. Although I hadn’t realized it had been six years since his St Vincent collaboration, Love This Giant. Full disclosure, Byrne’s solo career is one that I have never followed extensively. I actually found myself selectively going through a few of the albums in his back catalog to help frame the new record in my mind. His first “solo” record, Rei Momo was an album that completely slipped by me in 1989. It’s all Latino inspired music. It sounds like a Tex-Mex band playing at a Cinco De Mayo party, in a good way, and I really liked it. I’m sure it was thought of as a little eccentric in 1989 considering it was so far from his work in the Talking Heads. But he was always into world music and different poly-rythmic sounds. I also listened to his last solo record, Grown Backwards which is awash with strings and actually has Byrne doing a few opera songs. I have to say, I liked both records, probably more so because they were quirky. They stretched my concept of what a pop/rock song could sound like and I like that.

Byrne has certainly chosen a different path in his solo career. In my research I read the word “inconsistent” and “eccentric” or “avant garde” quite a bit. His solo career, a bit like Sting, took him in a lot of very different directions than the band that made him famous. Although in Sting’s case, his career always seemed calculated and pretentious… there were good songs but that “watercolors, light-jazz” thing didn’t do a lot for me. Byrne seems more truly the artiste than Sting ever has. One thing that has been consistent in Byrne’s career both with the Talking Heads and solo is that he returns to collaborating with the brilliant Brian Eno, but I’ll come back to that.

I grew up in the American heartland… The Talking Heads weren’t a band I heard a lot of in my hometown, Kansas City. They rose in the late 70s in the New York punk/post punk CBGB scene. I’d love to travel back in time and catch them, or Blondie, or Patti Smith at that bar… maybe in another lifetime. The Talking Heads were probably too edgy for KY/102, our radio station, but I still remember the first time I heard them and heard David Byrne’s voice. I always played my little clock/radio in the mornings when I was getting ready for school. It had to be late junior high/early high school, I was sitting on the bed pulling on my socks and this weird drum sound starts off… then this tremulous, nervous voice comes on and starts singing, “I don’t know why I love her like I do…” Yes, it was “Take Me To the River,” a Talking Heads song that was too big for our radio station to ignore. I had never heard this band before. If you’d have told me that song was originally by Al Green, I’d have thought you were crazy. For years I thought More Songs About Buildings and Food was their first album. In Kansas City, it was like Talking Heads 77 didn’t exist. Maybe that’s why Byrne has always expressed such disdain for where I come from, like on the song “Big Country” where he sings about us out here in fly-over country, “I wouldn’t live there if you paid me.” Ouch, David, ouch.

Admittedly, it wasn’t until I went to college, and started seeing the Talking Heads on MTV that I realized the depth and breadth of their work. I’d like to sound cool and say I was in on the Talking Heads from the beginning, but we just didn’t hear them. I didn’t even hear the song “Psycho Killer” until I was in college… and might I say, was there a more perfect singer in Byrne to sing that song. He sounded both psychotic and willing to kill. I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t get on the bandwagon and start buying Heads albums until after Speaking In Tongues. That one and Little Creatures got me hooked. Although my favorite albums now would be those first two, Talking Heads ’77 and More Songs About Buildings and Food. Byrne’s vocals, especially on those early albums were jittery and edgy, like a young virgin who had unwittingly walked into his first orgy. Who knew what was going to happen next? And the band – Chris Frantz (drums), his wife Tina Weymouth (bass) and Jerry Harrison (guitars/keyboards) – I just loved that early stuff where it was just the four of them. Through the years they added other players, keyboardists and percussionists. I dug every left turn. Many of those musical explorations were a result of the band collaborating with Eno.

Which leads me to American Utopia. From what I read, Eno did the basic tracks and sent them to Byrne to finish up the melodies and the lyrics. I think there were some other producers, notably Rodaihd McDonald who worked on the album as well. I first heard the great song, “Gasoline and Dirty Sheets” in my car and for a moment thought it was an old Talking Heads song. I quickly pulled the album up and listened once. I found myself listening again. This is an album I keep returning to. The music is buoyant and the melodies are very catchy. Byrne’s lyrics are at times cryptic to me so it’s hard to know if he’s joking and fucking with all of us or he means what he sings. The album is tied to a multi-media project, Reasons to Be Cheerful, which can be found at reasonstobecheerful.world. It’s got blog posts by Byrne and others that are genuinely cheerful.

I do know the song “Bullet” had some heavy, if subtle anti-gun messaging. Or at least I thought so. I’m not smart enough to decode David Byrne. I do know he’s “saying something” and I am really “concentrating….” “Every Day Is A Miracle” seems like an anti religious song, but it’s gloriously up beat and frames the world through the eyes of various barn animals. Similarly, “Dog’s Mind” has a vaguely political vibe by framing the world through the eyes of a dog… it has my favorite line, “we are all limited by what we are.” Deep thoughts and great melodies… count me in. “Everybody Is Coming To My House” is a great big song that sounds like a party invite but ends with the words, “everybody’s coming to my house, I’m never going to be alone, and I’m never gonna go home.” So, if everybody is coming over and you’re never going home, is this invitation really a stiff arm? Its little subtle stuff like that I keep coming back to, like a riddle. While the track “Its Not Dark Up Here” seems like a happy song on first listen, the lyrics are unsettling as well… “there’s nothing funny about making money, it wouldn’t work if it was.”

While I have admittedly not followed Byrne’s solo career very closely, I was deeply impressed with this album. If you’re looking for thoughtful, well made music by a true artist, American Utopia is a must buy. Frankly, and I’m shocked by this as it kind of came out of nowhere, this album is a strong candidate to end up on the B&V “Best of” this year. I urge everyone to check this one out. I know I’ll keep listening to it and I plan on circling back and checking out his back catalog more extensively!

Cheers!

 

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