Laurie Anderson Homeland

by Rich Morris Rating:10 Release Date:

Laurie Anderson occupies a place in pop music second only to Yoko Ono. Not a musician so much as an artist who chose music as her preferred medium, Anderson has been confounding, dividing and plain confusing audiences ever since 1981, when 'O Superman', an eight-minute-plus song consisting of little more than her own looped and treated vocals, got to number two in the UK charts.

Moreover, unlike other art-rock figures, Anderson has not mellowed with age - in 2010 she performed live with husband and musical partner Lou Reed. The resulting music was audible only to dogs. If anything, time has only lent greater weight to her art; I find it impossible, for example, to watch footage of or think about 9/11 or the current US drone strikes on Pakistan without hearing Anderson's heavily-treated, emotionally cool yet oddly singsong voice intoning "They're American planes, made in America" and getting chills. Actually, I've got chills now just thinking about it.

All of which made this brilliant and typically challenging album, released in 2010, something of a surprise. Co-produced with Reed and Roma Baran, Homeland, her first album in almost a decade, returned to Anderson's favourite subject: the moral and intellectual fibre of the USA at home and abroad. What was surprising at the time, but now seems less so given the disappointments of the Obama era, is the mournful, almost lachrymose tone which suffuses the album, making songs like 'The Lake', 'Strange Perfumes' (featuring Anthony Haggerty), and 'Falling', with it's tale of "Americans unrooted", beguiling, beautiful and mysterious listens, revealing their subject matter slowly over repeat listens.

Never an artist known for sentimentality or outbursts of passion, but rather her scalpel-sharp analysis and satire of a situation, Anderson nevertheless manages to convey her sadness and anger at the War on Terror and its ongoing geopolitical aftershocks, as well as her burning sense of injustice at the treatment of ordinary citizens in the wake of the global financial crises. Much of her disgust is reserved for the loss of innocence suffered by the young on both sides of conflict; references to "baby face" soldiers, "a kid's war," and a "children's crusade" pepper the album. "Welcome to the American night," she deadpans on 'Dark Time in the Revolution', her voice a wisp of cloud in an empty sky of white noise. It's one of many spine-chilling moments.

Perhaps significantly, many songs on the album feature distinctly Arabian sounding viola played by Eyvind Kang. Puncturing the melancholy mood, tracks such as 'Dark Time in the Revolution' and the opening 'Transitory Life' are interspersed by slabs of deep, throbbing electronic bass, implying a violence which could shatter the fragile stillness.

Elsewhere, her gift for satire is as lacerating as ever. On the album's greatest moment, the seven-and-a-half minute, cranky electro-punk of 'Only an Expert', she tells us that "in America we like solutions" with the oleaginous voice of an experienced snake oil salesman. Her relentless deconstruction of the self-supporting echo-chamber of American media, in partnership with US politics and big business, and how they conspire to shut out ordinary people from debate on issues which affect them the most, is at once affirming and disorientating, like being slapped in the face by the blazingly obvious. The fact that the music which backs up her mini-lecture is funky, furious and inventive as hell is a great big bonus too.

It's tempting to think that 'Thinking of You', with its "I pretend that you love me/ You pretend that you care" lyric, is about the UK's 'special relationship' with the US. It's almost certainly not, but that's the strength of Anderson's lyrics: like a true artist, she leaves room for interpretation. Not for her the clumsy agitprop produced by your average politically clueless indie band grasping for a bit of punk credibility.

Homeland might have largely slipped under the radar, like most of Anderson's music, but three years on its legacy seems assured. In her recent correspondence with philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Žižek, Pussy Riot's Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, still loocked away in a Russian prison, quoted 'Only an Expert', writing: "It would have been nice if Laurie and I could cut these experts down to size and take care of our own problems." That's the essence of punk right there, flowing down the generations.

Anderson's burning intellect is an almost tangible presence throughout Homeland. Like a teacher with a promising student, she won't just give you the answer. While never an easy listen, Homeland makes you very glad Laurie Anderson remains totally unafraid to tackle issues other artists run a mile from.

Following the recent, very sad loss of her husband, I can only sincerely wish her all the best and hope we hear more music from her before too long. I think angry, intelligent punks around the world need her voice more than ever right now.

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