Brian Eno & David Byrne - My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts - Classic Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

Brian Eno & David Byrne - My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts

by Mark Moody Rating:10 Release Date:1981-02-01
Brian Eno & David Byrne - My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts
Brian Eno & David Byrne - My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts

Less than two weeks ago from this writing (December 2, 2018), the body of longtime progressive radio host Ray Taliaferro was discovered in the woods near Paducah, Kentucky.  Taliaferro was a pioneering black broadcaster and community leader in San Francisco starting in the late 60s.  Sadly, he suffered from dementia in his later years and mysteriously went missing several weeks before his body was found. 

It’s hard not to think about Taliaferro wandering disoriented and alone when he was a lamp to so many in life.  For posterity though, his voice was captured in a much more vibrant moment as the first that is heard on Brian Eno and David Byrne’s collaboration, My Life In The Bush of Ghosts.

Over Byrne’s guitar scratch and Eno’s synths, Taliaferro intones “America is waiting for a message of some sort or another.”  A vocal clip that is almost forty years old comes through loud and clear surrounded by David Van Tiegham’s drumming and Bill Laswell’s bass work on top of the ominous swirl that Byrne and Eno have already set in motion.  The relevance of further splices of Taliaferro’s broadcast and his railing on about “absolutely no integrity” rings as true today as ever and is one of many elements that makes Bush of Ghosts so timeless.  By including live musicians along with found sounds and vocals, no matter how minced up in places, the album has an organic feel and humanity about it that avoids any sense of being dated.

Primarily recorded between the Talking Heads’ albums Fear of Music and Remain In Light (though released later due to the need to clear samples) the polyrhythms that Eno and Byrne were exploring are also on full display here.  Musically it’s a bridge from Fear of Music’s ‘I Zimbra’ to what emerged full-blown on Remain In Light and continued to expand in the live setting.  But more importantly, by blending in an inclusive array of vocal clips of different ethnicities, religions, and topics, the album becomes the modern musical equivalent of the Rosetta Stone.  The Rosetta Stone itself is important not as the founding of language, but given it had both Greek language and Egyptian hieroglyphs of the same passages it was the key to unlocking and unifying different languages and therefore voices.

After the opening ‘America Is Waiting’, the following ‘Mea Culpa’ continues in a veiled political vein.  Here the vocal snippets are so diced and scrambled that primarily what is heard over and over is “I made a mistake” along with a garbled, guttural voice.  The voices are overlaid onto a musical track that has an inner tension that makes me think of Pink Floyd’s ‘Run Like Hell’, but the sense of dread here is more palpable.  As impactful as those two tracks are, the molten core of the album doesn’t really begin until the following track.

Starting with ‘Regiment’1 and the succeeding two tracks, Bush of Ghosts turns into an inferno of voice and rhythms that command active listening.  Lebanese singer Dunya Yunis’ full-throated and largely intact vocal on ‘Regiment’ is otherworldly and beautiful at the same time while also displaying a gut-wrenching power.  Here the only other appearing Talking Head, Chris Frantz, somehow keeps pace on drums and the musical accompaniment here makes this one of the albums best tracks.  The following ‘Help Me Somebody’, with New Orleans’ preacher Paul Morton, is both earth-shaking in its intensity as well as the blueprint to Byrne’s sermon as song that became ‘Once In A Lifetime’.  ‘Help Me Somebody’ is more impassioned than ‘Lifetime’ and it is also easy to spot how it influenced ‘The Great Curve’.  So much so that you expect Byrne to burst out in “the world moves on a woman’s hips”.  The following ‘Jezebel Spirit’2 whips up a spooky intensity well before the clip of “Do you hear voices?  You do!  So you are possessed”.  No matter how contrived it probably is, the sound of the exorcist’s voice, interspersed cackles, and the woman’s labored breathing towards the end makes for a compelling listen.

Side two of the originally released album (I have a copy from way back then) opens with ‘Qu’ran’3, which ironically ended up being the most controversial track on the album.  The track includes seemingly innocuous readings from the Quran over music that evokes images of an aerial zoom over the Islamic call to prayer.  The mix of religious reading with modern music resulted in the artists agreeing to delete the track from future releases.  Side two becomes a less vocally centered, but no less musically important piece.  Think more like the second side of the Bowie/Eno collaborations on Low and Heroes.  The easiest contrast from side one is ‘The Carrier’ where Dunya Yunis, who was also the central voice on side one’s ‘Regiment’, reappears but her voice serves more to flavor than dominate the track.  This song and the following ‘A Secret Life’s' melodies later resurface on Remain In Light’s ‘The Overload’ and ‘Listening Wind’ respectively.

The Smithsonian Folkways derived vocals on ‘Moonlight In Glory’4 are some of the most manipulated on the album, but point to later artist Moby’s usage of black spirituals on his album Play.  The album fades out on two softer tracks where there are no credited guest musicians and no vocal sample on the closer.  Byrne’s guitar pings and Eno’s synths create an ambient expansiveness that creates a sense of a payload hurtling ever outward to the boundaries of the universe.  The faint vocal that echoes the title of ‘Come With Us’ beckons to somewhere familiar but also utterly foreign and maybe not of this world.

By interchangeably combining diverse spiritualities, both Christian and Muslim, as well as an array of ethnicities amongst musicians and vocal samples, My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts becomes the Star Spangled Banner, Union Jack, or whatever flag of inclusiveness we should all be draped in.  It’s hard to overstate the album’s importance on several levels.  This is the work of art that should be time capsuled and launched to alien worlds to show what possibilities can be achieved by the human heart and mind.  To say that Eno and Byrne paved the way for a new wave of experimentalism and musical cross-pollination is a bit of an insult to what they engineered.  This is no two-lane country road that they paved, but rather the musical equivalent of a ten lane highway out of Pyongyang that they bravely raced across without regard for border and boundaries.  Even though not many other vehicles have utilized the breadth of this highway so completely only speaks to the enormity of what they built, not that the road wasn’t needed.

Footnotes:

1This is one of two tracks where it’s pretty easy to find the original source material if you like.  Yunis’ vocal on the song ‘Abu Zeluf’ is readily available on Spotify and other digital streaming sources.  Best found by searching for the song title on Spotify or her name and the title together on the internet.

2The originally intended version of ‘Jezebel Spirit’ had a sample of well-known faith healer Kathryn Kuhlman, but the sample was unable to be cleared.  This version is fairly easy to find on the internet as well, but even though unfinished it is clear it would have paled to the official release.

3The track was replaced by ‘Very, Very Hungry’ (the b-side of ‘Jezebel Spirit’) on later editions and its flabby friendliness is clearly inferior to what was intended.  You can find the original track out on the internet and it’s worth tracking down.

4This is the other song where the original source material is easy to track down.  The Moving Star Hall Singers’ same named song is easy to find and this is the best track to see the extent to which some of the samples are manipulated.

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