Nonesuch/ Todo Mundo
Living legend David Byrne has touted American Utopia as his return after 14 years and, true enough, it is his first official solo release in that time. This is somewhat disingenuous, as Byrne has been restlessly busy in the interim. He has released several collaborative albums, most notably successful pairings with St Vincent’s Anne Clark and old friend Brian Eno, and he has also written some great books including the classic How Music Works. He even writes a blog – Reasons to Be Cheerful. In his older age Byrne refuses to play the dinosaur rock act – as evidenced through both his music and written work, he is a relentlessly analytical and intelligent artist whose mind will not stop whirring. His latest delivers on the promise, presenting a set of quirky and deconstructive tunes.
The lyrics are the key here. Byrne is tongue-in-cheek, scientific and neurotic all at once. Opener I Dance Like This is an unresolved tale of dancing in the face of (white collar) misfortune. Every Day is a Miracle is so lovably Byrne – an ode to counting your blessings paired to some hilarious yet garish imagery including chickens, cockroaches, and life from the point of view of a tongue. It’s Not Hard Up Here is a light-hearted piss-take on conformism and materialism. As is Doing the Right Thing, a nice little stab at rich white privilege. And yet these sentiments are refreshingly never mean-spirited. In his blog, Byrne writes mini-essays on examples of social reform that are actually working – a refreshing respite from this last year’s barrage of dire political news. Likewise, this album is optimistic. It scans a critical eye, but the tone gives a constant reminder that there are many good people out there who, even if misguided at times, mean well and have potential for change.
Unfortunately, despite the bright instrumentation and occasional experimentation, the album suffers from a lack of memorable melodies. It’s a shame because the list of talent involved here is vast and when they flex their musical muscle – like the Eastern-tinged solo on album highlight and single Everybody’s Coming to My House – it triumphs. Unfortunately for most of this album Byrne has an insistence on the traditional verse/chorus song structures that he’s been doing since the late 80s, avoiding too many of the instrumental breaks or lockstep ethnic grooves that made those early Talking Heads albums such classics.
It wouldn’t be as much of an issue if he provided some melodic twists and turns, but alas the songs themselves are predictable. Most of the aforementioned tunes, although a lyrical treat, are bogged in a mid-tempo mire and don’t stick in the head. The worst is Dog’s Mind, which pairs silly lyrics with a stupidly simple sing-song vocal melody. Perhaps Byrne intended it, but it sounded like it was written by a five year old. Likewise, This Is That should have been called “This is Xanax” given how numbing it is. And album closer Here is a lacklustre ballad whose lyrics – with prodigious references to brain anatomy – only momentarily amuse before the song lulls you to sleep.
The album is a great little quirky think piece, but the songwriting conformity of this project makes it hard to return to for seconds. Byrne is intending to do an elaborate tour – let’s hope these songs are given room to grow and realise their full potential on stage.