David Byrne dwells on his career on American Utopia

words by sean hannah (@shun_handsome)
rating 6

Rock and roll is serious business. It thrives on angst and maladjustment. It must be delivered with unwavering despondency and grave seriousness.  The seed of this ethos was first planted by John Lennon’s stone-faced performance of Help on Ed Sullivan and solidified shortly thereafter by Jim Morrison’s pouty face and his misapprehension that death is romance par excellence.

So why has it always been so entertaining to watch David Byrne just have fun?

Byrne has never taken himself all that seriously as a musician. He doesn’t follow trends, he works with the artists he truly wants to, and every album he’s put out has been uniquely Byrneian. David is the quintessence of artistic integrity; always cognizant of his audience but never interested in pandering or catering to them, the Scottish-born polymath makes the music he likes first and foremost with the hopes that we will too. His music doesn’t draw you in against your will to try and make you enjoy it, but each release always raises the question why you shouldn’t. And on American Utopia, the singer’s first solo album since 2004, Byrne continues his streak of making music designed with himself in mind above anyone else.

David’s greatest asset has always been his lyrical abilities, but on Utopia, he finds himself articulating ideas with a certain tactlessness. Bullet, for example, details the human element in a vague scene of a man being shot, calling attention to its subject’s food-laden stomach and love-ridden heart. The song conflates a man’s physicality with his emotional impact on others, yet describes the path of that eponymous bullet as its “merry way,” resulting in an uncouth mixed message about gun violence that seems to conjure an alternate New York history in which Bernie Goetz never got his fifteen minutes.

Much of the album deals with Byrne wrestling with his legacy as Talking Heads’ frontman. He knows he’ll forever be held to the standard of lyricism that he presented as a younger man with the seminal New Wave four-piece. So in light of this reality, Byrne makes winking allusions to his former group. The meta-musical track This Is That finds David evoking the familiar imagery of flowing water and limited personal funds in a nod to the Heads’ flagship single Once in a Lifetime. Only here, these concepts are used as a sentimental nostalgia trip, far removed from Lifetime’s cautionary tale of the disengagement from the passage of time.

Perhaps the most Talking Headsesque track here is Every Day is a Miracle, a Latin-tinged Industrial number that recalls the band’s exaltation of the mundane as a profound philosophical phenomenon. Here, Byrne’s preoccupations lie with a cockroach’s appetite for the Mona Lisa, a perfectly pruned rose, and the significance of a donkey’s penis. But none of these things are actually mundane or crass: instead, they’re depicted as the makeup of one of many miraculous days in a lifetime. American Utopia wasn’t conceived just for fans to draw parallels back to his records with Talking Heads (though the return of producer Brian Eno will certainly elicit Fear of Music/Remain in Light comparisons), and in spite of its lyrical shortcomings, the album explores new territory without compromising Byrne’s singular, globally-conscious point of view.

American Utopia isn’t a perfect album. It’s not Byrne at his peak, but it is a David Byrne album, which means that there’s an undeniable craft and care to it, and just the appropriate amount of weirdness and experimentation to remind us why Byrne has been an inimitable figure in music for so many years. Even though the record’s hits and misses are fairly evenly stacked, Utopia is a welcome return for David after having withheld a proper solo effort for nearly fifteen years. And while the salad days of Talking Heads’ commercial apex may be long gone, the fact remains that Byrne still stands as an unassailable pop culture icon as his music career approaches its sixth decade. With every new album or collaboration, Byrne maintains the ability to make headlines and waves in the music world; he’s always elated to share with us his latest artistic venture. Everybody’s coming to David’s house, and we couldn’t have asked for a more gracious host.

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