Album of the Week: David Byrne, 'American Utopia'


David Byrne, 'American Utopia'
David Byrne, 'American Utopia' (Courtesy of Nonesuch)
Album of the Week: David Byrne, 'American Utopia'
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David Byrne's new album title, he says in the liner notes, refers to, "...our longing, frustration, aspirations, fears and hopes regarding what could be possible." Yes, he does liner notes, like no one I can remember in recent times. He describes why he chose Purvis Young, an "outsider" artist from Miami, to put on the cover. It's worth the price, to get closer. And, he adds, this album is all about asking questions, "We look around and we ask ourselves - well, does it have to be likes this? Is there another way? These songs are about that asking and that looking." You might say that David Byrne, aside for being famous for being on the cover of Time magazine in 1986 as a renaissance man, is most famous for asking questions. His most quoted lyric is perhaps; "How did I get here? " from 'Once In A Lifetime' on the Remain In Light album of 1980.

It has been interesting to watch this renaissance man manifest, 20 years down the road. He was dubbed with it before it became a cliche, and he has proven since that it must mean; being unafraid to appear vulnerable. He did it by starting to ride his bike around NYC before it was a thing, when the traffic, lack of bike lanes and New Yorker's general dismissive attitude to anyone so stupid as to try it, made him very vulnerable. He did it when he wrote a musical about Imelda Marcos, which didn't mention the shoes, before 'Hamilton' made musicals cool again. He's done it recently by starting the Reasons To Be Cheerful project, where he enthuses about positive strides being made in communities around the globe!

And he did it again when, even though he collaborated with St. Vincent on his last big album and tour, he felt the need to point out that of the 25 collaborators he had on this project including his old buddy Brian Eno, Jack Penate, Daniel Lopatin, and Sampha, not one of them happened to be female! In these times of changing attitudes about the power dynamics of gender, what can a poor old white guy like David Byrne say that's relevant to anyone anymore!? Well, he just keeps trying. On track 8, "Doing The Right Thing" he's asking just that, what else can we old white guys do, as we try to do the right thing. On the next, penultimate track (the album has a great finale) he seems to be asking about what to do if everybody comes to your house and you want to be alone?! Which could be extended to mean being open to the idea of immigration, what happens if everyone wants to come to your country? "It's Not Dark Up Here" actually strains the point of asking these questions, "Must a question have an answer? Can't there be another way?"

Overall the music is bouncy, curt, uncluttered and uplifting. Other reviewers have pointed out that he tends to sing at his highest possible register too much. This is another example of his vulnerability showing through, it's where he feels least secure, it's OK. I like track 4 too, it's called "Dog's Mind" and seems to strike at the heart of America's non-utopian present where, "Reality is fiction and the dogs show no concern." I could've done without the references to dogs on no less than 3 other tracks! But then again, I guess these times call for all the help we can get, from man's best friend!


David Byrne - Official Site

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