David Byrne & Fatboy Slim - Here Lies Love

by Pete Sykes Rating:7.5 Release Date:2010-04-05

A collaboration between David Byrne and Fatboy Slim, aka Norman Cook? Strange enough, you might think - the former Talking Head and the 90s big-beat superstar/former Housemartin don't seem like the most obvious of musical partners. But that's not the strangest thing about Here Lies Love - it's a 22-track concept album about the life of Imelda Marcos, former first lady of the Philippines (during the corrupt, dictatorial rule of her husband Ferdinand) and infamous footwear enthusiast (as first lady, she famously owned over 3,000 pairs of shoes while her subjects suffered grinding poverty). Byrne explains that he wanted to ask... "what drives a powerful person?" Well, indeed, but it's still an unusual subject for an album of mid-tempo disco pop songs - but then, as Byrne further explains, he also wanted to "bring a 'story' and a kind of theater to the disco... wouldn't that be amazing!" Yes David, it would, but I'm not sure what kind of disco would actually play any of these songs.

What is amazing is the roster of talent that Byrne and Cook have managed to recruit to their crackpot scheme. The list of guest vocalists includes Cindi Lauper, Tori Amos, Florence Welch, Santigold, Martha Wainwright, Roisin Murphy, Natalie Merchant, St. Vincent, Camille, Sharon Jones and, er, Steve Earle (with Byrne himself, one of only two male vocalists on the album). This brings a kind of novelty to each song, as you try to recognize the vocalist, and also gives the record a constantly changing character, as no two tracks sound the same.

If you can stand a bit of cheese, there's a lot to enjoy here. The opening title track, which serves as an overture, is a string-laden ode to "The most important things... love and beauty," sung with typical gusto by Welch. Lauper's 'Eleven Days' is a slight but gleeful slice of 80s style pop; 'How Are You', with Anglo-American songstress Nellie McKay, rejoices in its latino-pop stylings and samba rhythms. 'The Rose of Tacloban', sung by Wainwright, is a delightfully chintzy tale of Marcos' teenage years, dreaming of fame while reading celebrity magazines, "Cutting out their faces and replacing them with my own." Musically, the record is largely composed of simple, direct and somewhat campy melodies, and if you didn't know already, you'd be very hard-pressed to identify the two individuals behind this album. Here Lies Love lacks Cook's bombast and sly sampling, and Byrne's relentless experimentation (although the latter did take an excursion into gospel-pop in his 2008 release with former collaborator Brian Eno, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today), but it does feature some very hummable tunes.

Of course, any album of 22 tracks is bound to have defects, and Here Lies Love is no exception, not least of which is that the whole exercise becomes pretty wearing after an hour or so. Of the songs, first single 'Please Don't', sung by Santigold, is somewhat undercooked, while 'Seven Years', which imagines Marcos' eventual disgrace and imprisonment, is overdone. Also, without wanting to get too heavy, there's remarkably little reference to Marcos' legendary corruption or her husband's brutally repressive regime; only on 'Seven Years', 'Order 1081', beautifully sung by Natalie Merchant, and the closing 'Why Don't You Love Me?', which has Marcos asking the titular question of her homeland, does violence and disgrace interrupt the fascination with her power and glamorous lifestyle. That said, while the music on Here Lies Love is hardly groundbreaking or even particularly memorable, this is an ambitious, diverting and often enjoyable rendering of Byrne's bonkers concept - Philippin' good, you might say.

Pete Sykes

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