David Byrne – American Utopia

Troubled times give rise to great art. This seems to be the general consensus, a truism even, and artists the world over, since time immemorial, have toiled away, tapping the sap of life’s suffering. So it is for David Byrne, after a protracted solo silence. 14 years is a long time to be gone from any scene. The world changes, sometimes beyond recognition. However, David has kept his hand in, in the interim, ticking over nicely with the collaborative approach we’ve come to associate him with, post-Talking Heads (Brian Eno, Norman Cook, St Vincent, Arcade Fire, De La Soul) and now for the rebirth. Just one month later would have made for an Easter release with real resurrection overtones, but this is still a springtime resurgence and a seasonally appropriate burst of optimism to sweep away winter and, sticking with the religious, bring light to the darkness. David is emphatic that the album’s title, American Utopia, is entirely without irony. There is no cynicism – just sincerity, plain and simple. Byrne’s motives are as unadorned as his voice and he is talking, alongside the singing, in a separate, but accompanying, tour of lectures, entitled ‘Reasons To Be Cheerful’. We can only surmise what Ian Dury would make of the appropriation.

American Utopia has its roots in David’s reading of Alexis de Tocqueville’s 1835 book, Democracy In America. The book unflinchingly scrutinises the structures, institution and operation of democracy and unpicks lessons that can be learned from successes and failures. Fast forward, and we have an anthropological album in American Utopia, that seeks, pragmatically, to alleviate the current socio-political gloom and to condense the unmanageably macro to the more digestible micro. There is even a song (‘Dog’s Mind’) celebrating our assumed simplicity of canine thoughts and a track about a chicken’s concept of heaven (‘Every Day Is A Miracle’). Is this David in philosophical mode, riffing on Wittgenstein’s theory that, “If a lion could talk, we could not understand him?” Whatever it may be, it is familiar Byrne territory, dismantling the bigger picture (global politics) elevating the seemingly insignificant and inane (animal thought processes, meals enjoyed) and remoulding the everyday into something strange, surreal and slightly unnerving.

Once again for Byrne, this is a collaborative project, and Brian Eno, Sampha and The xx producer Rodaidh McDonald have all played their part. Such successful co-working is no small miracle (and miracles are a recurring theme on this album) given Byrne’s self-confessed borderline ‘autism’. Talking Heads bassist Tina Weymouth has vented her ongoing bitterness towards David, matched by that of her drummer husband, Chris Frantz, stating publicly that, “David’s a very different kind of person. He doesn’t relate emotionally to things. You cannot guess what’s in his mind and what he says and what he does can be two entirely different things.” Nonetheless, David’s projects do get off the ground and they are many and diverse and American Utopia just joined the corpus.

The album peaks early with the second of the ten tracks (‘Gasoline and Dirty Sheets’) after the daring, jarring opener of ‘I Dance Like This’. You could be forgiven for prematurely panicking at this point. “We dance like this, because it feels so damn good” sings David, “If we could dance better, well, you know that we would. I’m working on my dancing. This is the best I can do.” He could almost be singing about his, well, singing, that’s if we substitute “sing” for “dance”! Yet, though he may never have had the greatest of voices, David counter-intuitively counts among the greatest of singers. In fact, his vocal shtick is the perfect, imperfect vehicle for this rousing rallying-cry of an album, that soundtracks these uncertain and insecure times. David has spoken of the deliberate aim of paring back, “Much of the process was about stripping things away. Often we’d see how much we could remove while still maintaining the essence of the song. This seemed to give due emphasis to the vocals and lyrics”.

The album doesn’t always hit the mark, with low points in the form of ‘This Is That’ and ‘Doing The Right Thing’, both of which seem to meander and drift aimlessly – coast, even. However, the day is saved by the closing two tracks, the penultimate, pulsatingly rhythmic first single, ‘Everybody’s Coming To My House’, with its parping brass and strangulated vocal, followed by the percussive album closer ‘Here’, which brings with it an unexpected expansiveness in the vein of Peter Gabriel, widening horizons, in both senses.

Throughout the album, though, there is the unmistakeable Byrne hallmark of egalitarianism, of creativity being for everyone, of throwing out the rule book. “I dance like this” sings David, defiantly, as the album begins. He always has (and no doubt always will) and to his own tune, as the saying goes.

Kelly Westlake

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