American Utopia, the first solo album in 14 years from Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, is hard on the ears. There are sitars that turn into synthesizers and Dadaist lyrics, that accumulate over the course of 10 tracks until they seem to serve only to dull the senses. The soundscapes and strange conceptual synergy, one imagines, are sure to charm the digital snakes and electric sheep with which Byrne surely spends his days. For most humans, however, they're harsh, alienating, and, worst of all, tacky. But there's one thing about the album that's worth listening to—if only once or twice—and that's for the signature, albeit sporadic, incandescence of Byrne's futuristic folk.
Born in Scotland in 1952, David Byrne spent his early childhood in Canada, before his parents later settled in Maryland. The Wikipedia description of Tom and Emma's union is stranger that fiction. The marriage was as a source of "tensions," the entry reports, due to its "mixed" nature, Byrne's "father being Catholic and his mother being Presbyterian." It was into this farcical familial breach—an intergenerational struggle predicated on something as milquetoast as the divisions between two denominations of Christianity—that Byrne was born.
For reasons that seem obvious, his career, which began in earnest in 1974 when he and his friends began to organize what would become the Talking Heads, would be focused on exposing the absurdities of American life, specifically white, suburban, post-war, Christian living. Together with Tina Weymouth's chops on bass guitar, Chris Frantz's knack for keeping time, and Jerry Harrison's pianist peccadilloes, Byrne's absurdist (and, in his words, "borderline Asperger's") style resulted in a 16-year, eight-album new wave collaboration that changed modern music.
There was "Psycho Killer," which addressed, like a version of Catcher in the Rye set to vinyl, the phoniness of most adult conversation ("You start a conversation you can't even finish it / You're talking a lot, but you're not saying anything"). There was the appalled atheist's anthem, "Heaven", that "place where nothing ever happens." And there was the unadulterated joy of "Stop Making Sense," the 1984 movie that depicted the Talking Heads in concert and is the only correct answer to "what's the one thing you take with you to a desert island?" But most ingenious of all was the 1981 single "Once in a Lifetime."
Set to a looping afro beat, the lyrics to "Once in a Lifetime" were the product of Byrne's two-month-long sojourn into Pentecostal sermons. The 1980s saw the Woodstock generation settle down, go straight, go sober, go narrow. They had kids and bought lots of stuff. At the same time, the "Silent Majority" made its wishes known, sending Ronald Reagan to the White House and filling the airwaves on both television and radio with digital evangelism like The PTL Club and The 700 Club and many other clubs of worship. In this cultural kerfuffle, Byrne found some of his best material.
"Once in a Lifetime" is written in a call-and-response style. A narrator, who appears to have all the answers, asks rhetorical questions of an audience adrift in modernity. There are references to consumer goods: large automobiles, beautiful houses. There are references, too, to technological challenges: "How do I work this?" Until it builds to the real moral question underlying these concerns: "Am I right? Am I wrong? My God! What have I done?" While the influence of the televangelist in society has wanted, the sting of discovering material goods do not guarantee happiness is as fresh as ever. As a result, the track continues to circulate in the fish bowl of contemporary society; most recently, it resurfaced in the trailer for Alexander Payne's poorly-received consumerist parable Downsizing.
At its best, American Utopia sounds a lot like the best of "Once in a Lifetime." At its worst, the new album sounds a lot like the worst of the very same song. The album seems to have been intended as an expressly political one, with political division—and derision—in Byrne's crosshairs.
As a result, some of the choicest lyrics on the album continue to sound like the warbled warnings of a folk musician from the future, here to remind us of the danger inherent in the stories we're telling ourselves. The refrain of "Everyday in a Miracle" is sad and soaring in this way: "Everyday is a miracle," he sings. "Everyday is an unpaid bill / You've got to sing for your supper / Love one another." But other lyrics are outlandish and upsetting. On the same song, in which Byrne narrates from the perspective of a chicken, a cockroach and a human tongue, he yells, "the dick of a donkey" for reasons that still remain unclear.
Worse, still, is the actual music. That looped African sound that Eno introduced to Byrne all those decades ago is here in full force. There are the synth-sitars, the hand drums, and even a hint of cowbell. Without what was apparently the mediating force of his Talking Heads bandmates, Byrne's solo work sounds increasingly like AI trying to make world music.
The kaleidoscopic cacophony aside, it's hard to identify a more analytical musician at work today. Only Kendrick Lamar, and perhaps Fiona Apple, come to mind as peers in this odd arena. (To Pimp A Butterfly in particular has that odd combination of pointed lyrics and chaotic sound Byrne so clearly loves.) While American Utopia is unlikely to earn a spot in my regular evening line-up the way so many Talking Heads classics have, it was still a bright spot in an otherwise dreary March to find myself invited, once again, to Byrne's burnt and beautiful house.