David Byrne: American Utopia (Warners)

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Dogs Mind
David Byrne: American Utopia (Warners)

The title of this album by David Byrne, his first under his own name since Grown Backwards about 14 years ago, is timely when we consider the state of the Great Society today, a nation which has written into its raison d'être, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.

As American government machinery crumbles from within, its people seem increasingly polarised – almost as much as the news channels CNN and Fox which frequently offer diametrically opposed interpretations of news, White House hirings and firings, and policy by tweets.

And whatever happened to that gun debate, huh?

In the jittery and staccato funk of It's Not Dark Up Here, Byrne sings, “there's only one way to read a book and there's only way to watch TV, there's only one way to smell a flower but there's millions of ways to be free . . . does winter follow spring, like night follows day, must a question have an answer, can't there be another way?”

In his own oblique manner Byrne provokes by taking contrary positions while he also challenges and questions the increasingly binary nature of his society. And while the answer doesn't necessary just include “let's dance” much of this album is rhythm driven in the manner of Talking Heads and his own early solo work.

The opener is I Dance Like This (“because it feels so damn good, if I could dance better you know that I would”) and you can imagine how that might be conveyed on his forthcoming tour. And yet aside from the brittle chorus, it is a piano ballad more akin to something by Neil Young (albeit with sharper metaphors).

Yet on This is That he also appears to questions whether music is relevant anymore (“the song . . . is nothing special, nothing profound”) but concludes that the rhythm gets him, yet ironically this is one of the songs which doesn't kick in like the music which he says have moved him. Or as on many of the others here.

Maybe that's deliberate?

At its most expansive and enjoyable here there is Everybody's Coming to My House – and those welcomed into his place for it include Brian Eno, TTY, Happa Isiah Barr from Onyx Collective, Daniel Lopatin aka Oneohtrix Point Never and Sampha (on piano, not singing). It harks back to Remain in Light/Speaking in Tongues with a few more electro-elements but the same driving rhythmic funkiness.

You can hear how any number of older Heads' songs could dovetail into it live.

But as always, Byrne offers the listening experience: Bullet is a disturbing piece (“the bullet went into his, his skin did part in two, skin that women had touched, the bullet passed on through”), made more so by it's quietly dispassionate description of the damage done to the body and the elevating melody.

And on Doing the Right Thing he shifts between an internal conversation (“I'm always doing the right thing, what am I supposed to with this, what am I supposed to know about this?”) but moves outside the Self and into the world of materialism and consumerism. Again he looks at that schism in life, but this time on a more personal rather than socio-political level.

And at times it rocks along.

His academic whimsy can seem somewhat clever-clogs at times (Every Day is a Miracle) and the difficulty of balancing pop with avant-whatever as well as the politics and the personal doesn't work over the long haul.

Musically of course it slips into the subconscious as much as onto the dancefloor.

It has some of its dancing feet and ears in his past and looks to the present predicament – it is part of project called Reasons to be Cheerful but actually offers few.

But in its ambiguous and sometimes ambivalent position between satire and sincerity American Utopia often fails to make the connection between head and heart as he might have wanted.


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Robert - Mar 13, 2018

I listened to this yesterday on Spotify which is a wonderful reason to have spotify for new music appreciation. I concur with your review comments. He is an old favourite of mine from the past but this is one I won't be buying. Interesting in that quite a few oldies are struggling to come up with new ideas in the same vein as what they have produced in the past. Actually quite a challenge really so I will give him some points for his efforts, still a great musician.

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