David Byrne - American Utopia

by John Plowright Rating:9 Release Date:2018-03-09
David Byrne - American Utopia
David Byrne - American Utopia

The title of David Byrne’s new ten-track album – ‘American Utopia’ (his first solo effort since 2004’s ‘Grown Backwards’) – is, he reassures us, not meant ironically. Its songs loosely reflect the aspiration for a better world, which also means that they reflect upon the perceived shortcomings of today’s America. This is not, however, some knee-jerk jeremiad against the Trump presidency but rather a deeper, or at least less detailed, lamentation on the betrayal of the American Dream for the mass of Americans.

Although sometimes depressed by present trends (“This situation drags me down/They form a country in my house”) Byrne remains enough of a utopian to reject cynicism or despair. Indeed he announced the album back in January during “Reasons To Be Cheerful” - an ongoing series of writings, photos, music and lectures curated by Byrne and united by the sentiment of hope. Accordingly the music on ‘American Utopia’ is often funky and brightly danceable but set in counterpoint to lyrics which are quite dark.

‘I Dance Like This’, the album’s first track, additionally has a chorus which bears no obvious relation musically or lyrically to the verses. Obscurantism is part of Byrne’s stock in trade although it’s difficult not to read at least some of the lyrics here as a belated riposte to Mark Cooper’s 1990 piece ‘David Byrne: Music, Maestro!’ in ‘Q’ magazine.

A running gag in this article was the peculiarity of Byrne’s overenthusiastic and uninhibited dancing when performing with his 14-piece Latin big band, with Cooper opining that Byrne “looks funny” trying to connect his “brain to his butt”, resembling nothing so much as a jerky chicken. Now Byrne tells us, “I dance like this/Because it feels so damn good/If I could dance better/Well you know that I would”, which seems a perfectly reasonable defence, if one is required.

Institutionalized religion offers millions denied a chance of building a heaven on earth, the comforting prospect of a heavenly afterlife. This is something with which Byrne has no truck. He called out the Old Testament Messiah on ‘Something Ain’t Right’, his 1992 ‘Uh-Oh’ album ("Come on down you old fart/Let's see if you've got a heart"), and now on ‘Everyday a Miracle’, where the world is examined through the eyes of various animal species we’re told “The Pope don't mean shit to a dog” which, like telling us that “elephants don't read newspapers” is hardly something of which we need reminding. Having said that, the uplifting chorus (“Every day is a miracle/Every day is an unpaid bill … Love one another”) does bear repeating given that it’s so easily lost from sight in the existential hurly burly.

1985’s ‘And She Was’ recounted an out-of-body experience and superficially ‘Dog’s Mind’ resembles ‘Everyday a Miracle’ by offering an out-of-human-body experience - inviting us to see the world through a dog’s eyes and show no concern “When the President took the stand”. On closer inspection, however, Byrne is comparing our own unconcerned state with that of canines, either “Dreaming all day long” or mired in corporeal concerns (“doing doody”) in a world “where reality is fiction” (the actual is represented as Fake News).

‘Bullet’ is another song which benefits from Byrne’s ability to look at things almost photographically from an unusual perspective, as it progressively traces the course of a bullet through the target’s skin, stomach, heart and head. This isn’t the first time that Byrne has delivered disembodied observational songs which find the universal in the particular but it works with exceptional beauty here.

Another Byrne characteristic is the question song, his ‘Once In A Lifetime’ being the most famous example. This trait also features on ‘American Utopia’ notably on ‘Doing The Right Thing’: “What am I supposed to do with this?/What am I supposed to know about this?/What am I supposed to have in my hands?/What is written on that paper you have?”, etc. As Johnny Nash used to sing “There are more questions than answers”. What Nash did not say is that this can become, as in this instance, somewhat tiresome. Indeed, ‘Gasoline and Dirty Sheets’, ‘This is That’, ‘It’s Not Dark Up Here’, ‘Here’ and ‘Doing The Right Thing’, are all, for me, lyrically unsatisfying, although this is offset by the fact that they’re all musically interesting, whilst the latter manages to be quite appealing.

The stand out track, however, is ‘Everybody’s Coming To My House’. The hook is so strong it only needs to be heard once to have you singing along, whilst the lines, “We're only tourists in this life/Only tourists but the view is nice” pithily encapsulates the fine line the album treads between seeing the good in the here and now whilst appreciating that all things – ourselves included – must pass.

David Byrne has collaborated with many people on “American Utopia”, most notably Brian Eno (who, amongst other things, co-wrote ‘Everybody’s Coming To My House’) but this remains very much a David Byrne album, managing to combine upbeat music with out-of-left-field and, often downbeat, lyrics to produce something that, at its best, engages the brain as well as encouraging dance.

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