Release Date: Mar 9, 2018
Record label: Nonesuch
As artists age, they can go one of a few ways; they either bow out gracefully, beat a dead horse or continue to find and push their boundaries. You can kind of guess where it’s going to for someone who, quite literally, wrote the book on music. David Byrne has been a constant force to be reckoned with, and as he’s getting older he’s settling in nicely to setting a fair standard of how you should do so.
Much has been made of the lead single's similarity to LCD Soundsystem - which should strike the listener as being something of an oxymoron. LCD Soundsystem wear their Talking Heads influence loudly and proudly, and the majority of their excellent 2017 album American Dream (go figure) features the distinctive polyrhythmic heft of Talking Heads' magnum opus Remain in Light (see: "Other Voices", "Change Yr Mind"). The lead single, "Everybody's Coming to My House", does evoke James Murphy's dance-punk crew in its bass-heavy groove, dense polyrhythms and over-caffeinated, hyper vocal delivery.
In the opening weeks of 2018, David Byrne went on tour - not with his live show, but with a presentation. From New York to Milan, he conducted lectures under the banner Reasons To Be Cheerful. Those sessions were about spreading optimism: in a world where depressing news is never far away, Byrne spotlighted the positive things humans are doing, progressive initiatives in areas from technology to transport.
In the cosmology of David Byrne, the Almighty resembles an aged rooster, bullets wreak unthinking destruction with a certain bleak poetry and dogs pretty much have it made. They're all reference points on American Utopia, Byrne's first new solo album since 2004. In the intervening years, Byrne, 65, released collaborative LPs with Brian Eno and St. Vincent, respectively; wrote musicals about Imelda Marcos (with Fatboy Slim) and Joan of Arc, respectively; scored the 2011 movie This Must Be the Place; explored his interest in color guards with a pair of live events that resulted in the 2016 documentary Contemporary Color; and published three books.
To download, click "Share" and right-click the download icon | iTunes | Podchaser The Lowdown: American Utopia is vintage David Byrne, danceable and bristling with wit. The America he presents is chaotic and contradictory, and the music is, too. The songs contradict each other; they contradict themselves. The characters are rich people and poor refugees and dumb livestock.
"Is this meant ironically? Is it a joke? Do I mean this seriously? In what way?" David Byrne seems to be simultaneously inviting and acknowledging some likely reactions to his 2018 album, American Utopia, in his own liner notes. At a time when America has been thrown into a state of chaos -- something Byrne witnessed and creatively reacted to as an artist during the Reagan era -- here he imagines what appears to be an alternate version of the United States and the people who live in it. (Animals, too -- a variety of critters pop up in "Every Day Is a Miracle," and "Dog's Mind" imagines how our canine friends view the world.
David Byrne's distinctive vision - a winsomely-skewed clarity - is usually most compelling when trained on scary stuff, be it psycho killers, zealous baptism metaphors, warning signs of things to come, or the sudden strangeness of one's beautiful house and beautiful wife. Lately, we've no shortage of scary stuff, and it's encouraging that Byrne's latest solo set is willing to go there. When it does, rhythms and racket ratcheting up accordingly, American Utopia - abetted by an old comrade (Brian Eno, contributing beats) and new ones (Daniel "Oneohtrix Point Never" Lopatin, Sampha/XX producer Rodaidh McDonald) - boasts some of the most exciting music Byrne has made in years.
The idea of utopia in America in 2018 seems so radically opposed to the reality of America in 2018 that the initial reaction to the title of David Byrne's latest studio album is to ask if the artist is being ironic. That's not the intention. Instead, American Utopia is an extension of Byrne's ongoing series Reasons To Be Cheerful, an attempt to find the good and optimism in the world in 2018.
The idea of an American utopia might seem far out of reach right now. Yet, David Byrne has been looking into the darker complexities of modern life and wondering about the possible alternatives. And as he says himself: "Music is a kind of model - it often tells us or points us toward how we can be". Thus new album, 'American Utopia', slots neatly alongside his series 'Reasons To Be Cheerful' (named after the song from Ian Dury & The Blockheads).
David Byrne is a busy guy. In the six years since his last full-length, 2012's St. Vincent collab Love This Giant, the 65-year old artist has maintained a creatively restless pace: in between music guest spots, he's written a book, turned one of his records into a stage production and pulled off the hugely ambitious Contemporary Color colour guard event.
Of all his surviving CBGB peers, David Byrne is the one who remains, as he was at the time, welded to art-rock. Occasionally slipping into the commercial spotlight, he has wilfully pursued his singular vision; devising, writing, and producing material that will be rightfully assessed as a "body of work" when his time comes. And, as our icons are falling left, right and centre, it truly is time to appreciate the polymath at his best: delivering those edgy, nervy little pop songs that can make you simultaneously think and dance.
During the heyday of the Talking Heads, David Byrne perhaps most clearly defined his vision of an American utopia from 40,000 feet in the air. “I wouldn't live there if you paid me,” he sang on 1978's “The Big Country,” paradoxically embodying and satirizing the stereotypical New Yorker's disdain for flyover country. “I couldn't do the things the way those people do.” Four decades later, Byrne is feeling more generous, though he remains equally detached.
For legacy musicians in their late-career phrase, there's a common track to follow. Maybe it's an album that incentivizes low risk/low reward, a real back-to-basics outing, or a tasteful covers collection followed by some meditations on aging that lead to predetermined takeaways, that sort of thing. But so long as they're willing to settle for good-enough, everybody wins: The artist keeps creating, Rolling Stone tosses them an extra star as a thank you for their service, and fans get a chance to hear the old hits on tour.
It has been some 14 or so years since we last heard from David Byrne on a fully realized solo project. 2004's Grown Backwards saw the now 65-year-old former Talking Heads frontman caught in between staying true to his immensely quirky and individualistic past and the pressures of adapting that to a new audience which, for the first time may have been blissfully unaware of his past. The group in which he made his name had been disbanded for over a decade at this point— a couple of short-lived reunion tours notwithstanding— and the loneliness of this manifested on the record, no matter how much Byrne tried to hide it.
To some, David Byrne is a wild-eyed performer who once rocked an oversized suit and wrote some of the eighties most eccentric and charming singles. To others, he's a creative tour de force, a tirelessly original thinker always looking at fun and fresh ways in which to articulate what's on his mind. On the strength of his latest release, the truth is somewhere in between.
American Utopia is the first David Byrne release to be billed as a pure solo album since 2004's Grown Backwards, but it has more in common with Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, his joint effort with Brian Eno from four years later. Like that album, American Utopia is filled with short and simply written songs, their pensive verses bursting into jubilant choruses on a fairly reliable schedule. Byrne has been working sporadically but confidently in this mode since Talking Heads released their sixth album Little Creatures in 1985.