Monday, March 12, 2018

album review: 'american utopia' by david byrne

So I've talked a little before about legacy acts, artists who were a fundamental part of the evolution of a specific genre or sound and who have won a certain amount of popular and critical acclaim for whatever they choose to do next, often with a measure of clout and collaborative pull that few could approach. But let's ask an uncomfortable question: what do you do with said acts when the legacy starts to get reexamined, and you come to the realization that while the emperor probably still has some clothes, it's a fair bit less than one might expect?

And yes, I get that by me making that statement even in connection with David Byrne I've set myself up for backlash... but it's hard not to feel like in recent years the narrative has shifted. His reputation as the mastermind behind The Talking Heads has shown more than a few holes in the past couple of years - a reputation many have suspected he achieved by stifling other voices in his group - and while his work with Brian Eno won critical acclaim, many have questioned how influential those pieces were. Even his film scores, one of which netted him an Academy Awards, while the quality is often appreciated in the 80s it gets a lot less listenable when you head into the and parts of the 2000s.

And look, as a fiercely intelligent personality in modern culture and music, I like David Byrne, but the more I delved into his content and themes the more I found myself questioning how much perceptive depth has really been on the table this whole time. I mean, I like self-obsessed deconstructions and wry observations as much as any critic, but just being more clever than everyone else doesn't always add up to more, with the most glaring instance of this being his collaboration with St. Vincent Love This Giant, a stiff and absolutely frustrating affair where two artists who have enough similarities to challenge each other but are instead content with mirrored stiffness. And thus when I say I was skeptical about his newest project American Utopia, a project that Byrne admits was searching more for some abstract uplifting feeling and possibilities than engage with reality, to offer a shred of hope. To me... well, it wasn't a bad idea, and he brought onboard Brian Eno, Sampha, and Oneohtrix Point Never to help, so I had some faith this could be at least interesting over ten tracks running less than forty minutes, so okay, what did he give us on American Utopia?

...oh God, I feel I should be way less charitable than I think I'll wind up being. And that's not normally something I'd say because for as terminally flawed as this record is - and make no mistake, for as much as David Byrne is hyping this, the shortcomings are as blatantly obvious as they've ever been - there's still a part of me that wants to try and find some excuse for David Byrne or at least assume there's more depth than there actually is. And as such I've been giving this record entirely more listens than so many others on my list trying to find that deeper resonance... and look, it's not here, mingled snippets of gleaming promise but entirely too many wonky, badly considered choices and lyrics that I'd have crucified a lesser artist for a dozen times over.

Granted, some of my desire to be charitable are the collaborators Byrne is bringing to bear here, especially in the production. Both Brian Eno and Rodaidh McDonald are really damn good producers, able to modulate the fizzy brittleness of much of the percussion with the prominent bass grooves, damp guitar progressions, arranged strings, and even firmer horns that show up on songs like 'Gasoline And Dirty Sheets' and 'Everybody's Coming To My House', all with an organic fullness and depth that doesn't really have much edge but still packs a punch in the melodic groove. And whenever Oneohtrix Point Never contributes more brittle shuddering keys and beats that show something a little more ragged and twisted on songs like 'This Is That', while I won't say they have the same immediate catchiness they do reflect a more experimental side to this project that would inspire someone to think there's more going on than there actually is. If I take more issues I think they come in the compositional choices, from the flat guitar melody on 'It's Not Dark Up Here' that I liked more when Sparks and Franz Ferdinand took similar tones to the limp keyboards on 'Bullet' that are then paired with acoustics that utterly fail to cultivate any sense of deeper atmosphere with the oddly languid tropical tone that also shows up on 'Every Day Is A Miracle'. Or if you want the most blatant example of tonal dissonance, look at the opening song 'I Dance Like This', where for the hook Byrne shifts from more elegant keys to a jagged, pulsating and staccato electronic beat that doesn't fit any sort of transition. Granted, some of this comes with Byrne himself - and I'll give him credit for clearly throwing himself into these tunes with a slightly haggard but full-throated delivery... that only gets slightly cringe-worthy when you hear a falsetto that has never been his strong suit, and it makes you wish that Sampha could have contributed more besides background on 'Everyone's Coming To My House'.

But now we have to get to the actual content - and you know what, as much as I feel like utopian themes can feel a little out-of-touch with reality when it comes to speaking to a modern audience, I get escapism, and I get aspirations for something more and something better. And yet why is the first record that I think of when listening through American Utopia is Common's fateful Black America Again from 2016, released with the clear expectation of a different election outcome and now feels woefully out-of-step? But that's the frustrating thing about David Byrne releasing a record in this vein: he's clearly trying to take his immersion in normalcy and natural detachment and find some vestige of freedom in the open question of what things could be, but it's a position that's taken when you don't have any real stakes to worry about and aren't really willing to engage in the deeper, less-comfortable questions. Take 'Doing The Right Thing', where he's asking questions of the comfortable and profitable routine and whether what's 'right' by that is actually good - it's clear he wants to help and take action, but there's no sense of urgency and you get lyrics like 'And the world won't end / it will just change its name', which is an easy, pseudo-profound thing to say when you're not going to be seriously inconvenienced by the change. It's a similar case with 'I Dance Like This', which tries to own its jittery actions, but only seems half-aware that's not always an option for those he describes in the first two verses, and lacks even a sense of indignity to change it. I'll admit that Byrne feels more earnest than Portugal. The Man saying he's a 'rebel just for kicks', but him belting the hook on 'Everyday Is A Miracle' to just 'love one another' feels pretty damn trite.

And now we have to get to the elephant in the room: the actual lyrics themselves. And I get there's always been an element of creative abstraction and metaphor and that a choice to indulge a lighter tone means you can get a little sillier... but I'm sorry, if we had Pat Monahan from Train delivering these lines instead of Byrne he wouldn't get nearly the same pass. 'The brain of a chicken / and the dick of a donkey / A pig in a blanket / and that's why you want me' - I get the self-deprecating metaphor targeting intelligence, sexual appetites, and privilege, and how the usage of animal references specifically cockroaches in that song highlight a certain Kafkaesque system even observant humans cannot possibly understand, but at best it sounds goofy and at worst trivializing in a really unflattering way, even when a few lines later he says how 'the mind is a soft-boiled potato'! And similar metaphors extend to 'Dog's Mind', highlighting how dogs are fundamentally limited in their concerns of life just as we humans are and we can choose to embrace a certain paradise in our minds... but there are two major problems with this. First, this song includes the line on the hook 'doggy dancers doing doody'; and secondly, it extends the fundamental assumption that we don't or can't understand the larger systems around a scene of rampant disinformation perpetuated by those in power, and that's just not true in the same way anymore, especially in the era of the internet. Byrne has always had an abstract fascination with those systems of human behavior, and that can add the slightest bit of panic to a song like 'Everybody's Coming To My House', but it's the same detachment where he chooses not to give a name to the woman in 'Gasoline And Dirty Sheets' who utterly rejects his trite, free-your-mind platitudes all over the rest of the album - and winds up being the best song here as a result. Or, on a much worse note, how he focuses more on the bullet's clinical progression on the song 'Bullet' rather than the man shot dead, and for a record that's trying so hard to feel socially aware, it's a complete failure in tone and lyrical execution!

Look, as I said at the beginning, I like and respect David Byrne for his ambition and clearly trying to make a positive statement with this, but the more listens I gave it the more I felt his statement trite, incoherent, or out-of-touch at best, and myopic or dangerously misguided at worst. Good intentions, sure, and there are some good grooves, hooks, and production to back some of it up, but nowhere close to consistent there and entirely too many failures in lyrical execution to be better. In short, it's the brand of utopian dreaming that comes from a multi-millionare artist firmly ensconced inside a system he'd rather comment upon than actively challenge, and if the writing and increasingly broad presentation wasn't trying to frame it as a profound version of the latter, I'd probably be more charitable overall. For me this is a 5/10 and only a recommendation to diehard fans, and even then, it's a serious step back from earlier solo projects or anything he did with the Talking Heads. Apparently he still throws a great live show and I respect that, but this should be a lot better than it is, and I can't give it a pass.

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