20 Mar 2018

American Utopia by David Byrne

From The Sampler, 7:30 pm on 20 March 2018

Nick Bollinger examines the chicken-and-dog's-eye views of America on David Byrne's new album.

David Byrne

David Byrne Photo: supplied

It’s just over forty years since the first Talking Heads album introduced us to the singular persona of David Byrne, and there’s something about his new record that is like being greeted by an old, slightly peculiar friend.

In the first verse of ‘Every Day is a Miracle’ Byrne imagines how the world might appear to a chicken – including the chicken’s thoughts on God and beauty - before breaking into a celebratory chorus of ‘every day is a miracle’. If that’s not quite a perspective he’s given us before, the tone is familiar.

American Utopia

American Utopia Photo: supplied

From those first stark and nervy Talking Heads records to his later dalliances with funk, African and other world musics, something about Byrne has remained constant: a detached yet warm-hearted fascination with the way life on earth seems to organise itself. And you’ll find plenty more of that here.

He could have titled this album Even More Songs About Buildings and Food – and shopping malls, animals, governments, flowers and life during wartime. Instead, he’s called it American Utopia, a title he must have known would sound an off note at a time when glaring divisions are making America seem perhaps less utopian than ever.

But these ten new songs aren’t really meant to be snapshots of Utopia. They are more like studies of life on earth from a series of typically Byrne-esque angles. And sometimes those angles do make the world seem curiously utopian; at other times it’s a bleak and hostile place.

The album has been touted as a kind of a comeback, though Byrne has hardly been away. It’s barely five years since his collaboration with St. Vincent, seven since his opera with Fatboy Slim and not much longer since his last collaboration with Brian Eno. In between there have been books, tours and numerous art projects.

And if it is the first album in fourteen years to carry Byrne’s name alone, his process has been as collaborative as ever. Starting from a series of drum loops by Eno (who he’s worked with off and on since the second Talking Heads record, 40 years ago) Byrne wrote and made initial recordings of these songs. He then sent those off to a slew of other music-makers – though no women among them, as it has been pointed out to his chagrin – from which he ultimately stitched together the mixes that make up this album.

The variety of collaborators might be heard in what often seem like abrupt and arbitrary switches of style. Listen to the opening track, ‘I Dance Like This’. It starts out as a slow piano ballad – almost Randy Newman – before gear-shifting into a ridiculous robotic funk.

If there’s a kind of novelty humour about those outrageous juxtapositions, it’s not the only song that will make you smile. You sense Byrne wants this album to connect on some universal pop level, and he’s just launched an epic world tour to promote it.

But it’s not all fun and games. There are darker subjects too, like the song he bluntly calls ‘Bullet’. Again, it uses a trick he’s used before – taking a dispassionate, mechanistic approach to something generally evoked in more emotional terms. And while it works as an attention-grabber, he’s done it better and more subtly elsewhere.

As for his voice, as you can hear he can still hit those hysterical high notes. It’s at the lower end that he’s sounding a bit more strained and shaky than he once did. Then again, those rough edges give a nicely humanising touch to a song where, once again, he considers the follies of humankind from a dispassionate point of view.

Just as the title American Utopia doesn’t exactly mean what it says, the tone of these songs doesn’t signal disinterest or unawareness of current events. The figure of The President – though never referred to by name – appears in more than one of these songs, even if it is only in the peripheral vision of a dog.

This oblique way of remarking on the strangeness of the world has worked for Byrne in the past and on American Utopia it does too, with some clever, hooky and engaging moments. But at a time when the world can seem stranger than even anything a dog might have to say about it, I wonder if Byrne’s time-tested quirks have quite the power they once had?

American Utopia is available on Nonesuch