Album review: David Byrne – American Utopia

Photo: Bryan Derballa/Redux

David Byrne delivers his highly-anticipated latest solo effort, but how does the former Talking Head’s new work compare to past works?

Perhaps it’s a case of great minds thinking alike or just a paucity of vocabulary, but in preparing for this review and considering the towering achievements of David Byrne, the words ‘polymath’ and ‘renaissance man’ jockeyed for position in efforts to summarise his talents. On opening the new issue of Mojo, the same two descriptors leapt from the headlines of the article and interview that the said magazine has run to presage the release of Byrne’s first solo album release in 14 years and accompanying tour.

But then how else do you describe someone who brings such obvious intellect and a sense of rigour to their art and be so free to shift disciplines from music, to film, to dance, to opera, to photography, to literature to… well, what next? His willingness to explore, an undimmed sense of wonder, his ability to take the slanted view and circumvent the obvious in search of the truth sets him apart, in the way that all great artists can stand alone.

There’s another coincidence here. American Utopia fits into a wider concept called Reasons To Be Cheerful. Taking its cue from the Ian Dury song, Byrne is trying to find the positives in life at a time when bad news begets bad news and a rolling 24 hour tic-a-tape of horrors has become the pervasive backdrop to our lives. Similar thoughts had occurred to me, leading to the appropriation of another title, this time from a Kate Atkinson novel, “When Will There Be Good News?”

It has prompted a number of Facebook saves in an effort to add a feel-good-factor to my daily digest. There is no end purpose to this, however, as I hadn’t worked that bit out, nor indeed anything special claimed, but to have Byrne make such a public play of it makes me wonder how many of us feel the same at this time.

So, perhaps the question is, are there reasons to be cheerful about American Utopia? The answer is a resounding ‘yes’. There is enough here that is at once instantly familiar to his legion fans and enough to challenge, provoke and stimulate with fresh innovation.

On the familiar side is the distinctive delivery, although on the opener “I Dance Like This” he sounds older. The effect is instantly disarming, a naturalistic approach that suggests someone comfortable with who they are. Aging is no impediment per se even if things are different. The song too has all of the tics of the angular, oblique lyricism and wound-tight musicality that we know and love, as it builds on the gentle, opening piano motif towards a clanging discordant chorus of sorts. As discomfiting as the melodic lurch is, the sense of internal logic is set, challenge and familiarity in harmony and discord all at once.

Long-time collaborator Brian Eno (right) is back on production & writing duties for the majority of American Utopia.

Also on the familiar side is the presence of Brian Eno, a regular collaborator and musical and intellectual foil over the years. He co-writes eight of the 10 songs and has a hand in creating the original rhythm tracks and sound-beds for the album. On the opposite side is Oneohtrix Point Never, a.k.a Daniel Lopatin, the American experimental composer, who claims a co-writing credit on the other two tracks. There are old and new faces in the production teaming of Patrick Dillett and Rodaidh McDonald too.

Lyrically, the album isn’t a prescriptive list of reasons to be cheerful, but rather a questioning, sidelong glance of the things that define the human experience, even when that is framed by the perspective of a dog or a chicken, or the trajectory of a bullet. The song simply titled “Bullet” follows the latter course in a somewhat disturbingly matter of fact way. “Everyday Is A Miracle” and “Dog’s Mind” have rather more fun with the aforementioned animals, the point of which seems to be contained in the lyric, “and we, in turn, are limited, by what it is we are.” It’s these limits that prevent us realising the American Utopia of the title, so perhaps a change of perspective is needed.

Throwing so many ideas about, it’s inevitable that not everything will fall neatly into place, but the record really saves its aces for the final hand. The string washed “Doing The Right Thing”, the outstanding, lithe and funky “Everybody’s Coming To My House” with it’s, “we are only tourists in this life” refrain and the finale, “Here”, are all current favourites.

Whether this will satisfy all comers is doubtful; David Byrne has such a legacy after all. But the fact that he continues to stick his chin out without fear of the blows is worth celebrating in itself. Give this a similar time, as some of his work now dates back 40 years and who knows how this might be viewed. It may not be the sat-nav to American Utopia, but it’s one hell of an interesting diversion along the way.

Why not come in to your local Richer Sounds today and hear this dynamic album for yourself on one of our fantastic hi-fi systems today?





Author: Simon, London Bridge store