Byrne's Eye View
We can forgive the Presidential Inauguration Committee for leaving David Byrne out of January's Obama festivities. After all, when you're trying to reach millions of Americans, Bruce Springsteen is about as populist as you can get. And Aretha Franklin probably represents the collapse of racial barriers more than any other singer alive. But if they were looking for songs that would embody a sense of hope for these "troubled times" yet be void of cliché — which plagues Springsteen's most recent batch, Working on a Dream — the former Talking Head should have been their man.
David Byrne, 56, has white hair and dark eyebrows, the combination making him appear permanently awestruck. Last year, as the election was nearing, he released a record with his friend Brian Eno called Everything That Happens Will Happen Today. It was uplifting and positive, but filled with images of bleak, monotonous living. Musically, the album was all clean, healing rhythms — and combined with Byrne's lyrics, the overall effect was one of positive reassurance. Essentially, the album's message was that while things may get rough, the human spirit cannot be broken. Sound familiar? Look no further than Obama's inaugural speech, which was probably the most uplifting recitation of bad news our country has ever heard.
"Where does the sanguine and heartening tone come from," writes Byrne in Everything's liner notes, "particularly in these troubled times?" We'll leave that to the philosophers and theologians. But it's obvious that Byrne and Eno achieved that tone by approaching Everything with the same clearheaded, no-nonsense manner as Obama did his speech. But Obama has always been a great explainer, and that speech was more of what we were used to. For Byrne and Eno to come off as traditionalists, on the other hand, is totally out of left field. After all, these men are synonymous with the words "unconventional" and "idiosyncratic."
For the past two-plus decades, Byrne — who will perform Everything Monday night sans Eno — has pursued one of the most artistically fruitful and oddball careers of anyone in rock and roll. He's written a rock opera about Imelda Marcos, designed bicycle racks in New York City, conceived a sound-art installation piece and even geeked out on the virtues of PowerPoint. That's just a sampling.
But what would you expect from the man who wrote "Big Country," a backwoods-swing reflection on flying over Middle America in which Byrne pits himself against "ordinary" people? Certainly not an album of gospel-inflected numbers about finding hope in mundane American existence.
Everything's cover art — a Sims-meets-Google Earth view of a suburban home —harkens back to the bird's-eye view of "Big Country," as does the whoosh of acoustic guitar that introduces the title track. Byrne sounds almost sympathetic to the routines of daily life as he sings "Nothing has changed, but nothing's the same / And every tomorrow could be yesterday."
Now living an ocean apart (Byrne in New York, Eno in London), the two split duties for this collaboration with expert efficiency. Eno did the music; Byrne handled words and singing. "Digital homespun" is probably the best catchall coinage to describe the music's patchwork simplicity. Lush as they are, the rhythms are also schoolbook-simple, each one cradling Byrne's storytelling lyrics like a warm breeze.
His singing here is less jittery than in his work with Talking Heads, evoking a man-child finding wonderment in what he observes when he sets foot out his front door. Each lyric seems to paint a narrative that wouldn't be out of place in a David Foster Wallace essay: Images of smooth freeways, telephone bills, fighting suburban couples and big-box grocery stores ground the songs in present-day America and the overarching loneliness postmodernists have been so obsessed with.
But Byrne populates these songs with characters who, no matter how adrift in the monotony of American life they may be, always push themselves toward a sense of faith. "I'm lost, but I'm not afraid," he sings on "My Big Nurse" and "Heaven knows what keeps mankind alive" on "Home."
In 1978, when he sang "Big Country" and declared, "I wouldn't live there [suburbia] if they paid me," it crystallized Byrne's weirdo-outsider persona and set the tone for his subsequent left-field career. That he now sounds so sympathetic and forgiving of normalcy is a sign of his maturity. Of course, by comparison with his past work, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today is an utterly listenable album. And it's also his least edgy-sounding.
Then again, it's highly likely that pitching to the middle of the plate is David Byrne's idea of a curveball.
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