AMERICAN UTOPIA by David Byrne
Genre: Art Pop
Favorite Tracks: “Doing The Right Thing,” “Everybody’s Coming To My House”
I don’t think David Byrne’s solo material over the last two decades has been particularly revelatory, but perhaps that’s by design. His last 10 years of music have done very little to demystify the prolific American songwriter for a new generation, instead focusing mostly on highlighting his desire to collaborate. Whether it be Fatboy Slim on HERE LIES LOVE, St. Vincent on LOVE THIS GIANT, or longtime friend and creative partner Brian Eno on EVERYTHING THAT HAPPENS WILL HAPPEN TODAY, how much we can learn about Byrne is stifled by the collaborative nature of the projects. We have to rewind all the way back to 2004’s GROWN BACKWARDS to really learn or experience the former Talking Heads singer plainly and not as a leader or curator, and that album took his fascination with African and South American rhythms and percussion and built pretty, enjoyable, and simple art pop songs from it. It was simple in ways that his later collaborations weren’t.
His newest album, AMERICAN UTOPIA, is a well-intentioned mess, and it’s anything but simple. Say what you will about the last 10 years of Byrne, but those collaborators at the very least kept him honest; Eno’s production has long since felt natural for the two, St. Vincent’s come up in art rock was an evolution created, in some part, by artists like Byrne, and HERE LIES LOVE had Fatboy Slim’s dance-first production mixing curiously with Byrne’s curation on an album that captured his musical essence more than his actual persona. But AMERICAN UTOPIA is difficult and chaotic, at times uninteresting, and at other times boring. The desire to collaborate exists here in the production credits, but never is it in service of Byrne.
Take the closer, “Here,” a song that hinges on sparse, wooden percussion and a bed of whining synths. Musically the background of this track tries to build to something interesting, as the drums themselves becoming more gated and the synths rev in intensity, but Byrne’s dissonant vocals fall flat on top, almost laughably disconnected from the entire piece until his harmonies line up with the guitar in the final 30 seconds. Even the way he pushes the word “Here” out of his mouth at the beginning of each line is irksome in its own way, and jarring against the song.
While the lyrics to “Here,” somewhat vaguely talking about connecting and acknowledging the world at large, certainly tie into this larger theme of how to mentally perceive Americanism, freedom, capitalism, and our role in it all, the delivery of these ideas is frequently hindered by both Byrne’s own instincts and the production itself. Take a song like “Dog’s Mind,” which is on paper a pretty fascinating commentary about the current state of American politics (generally) through the lens of a dog, whose blissful ignorance to the way the world works allows them to be “Dreaming all day long / In a paradise of (their) own.” It never quite gets going, with Byrne’s presentational soliloquy, which feels like a single spotlight opening curtain solo of a soon-to-be musical, being emphasized slowly by swelling and attemptedly epic synths that roll in while Byrne’s vocal track never evolves. Same for tracks like “Bullet” or the Oneohtrix Point Never assisted “This Is That,” both of which never get out of second gear while delivering some odd, occasionally important feeling, Byrne-ian observations.
Most frustrating of all of these is “It’s Not Dark Up Here,” where his Byrne-ian anecdotes about capitalism (I guess?) are emphasized by the only interesting vocal performance on the album, a performance that feels surreally detached. He is saying things that are astute and, by all accounts, serious (“There’s nothing funny about making money / It wouldn’t work if it was / There’s nothing funny about going to heaven / And there’s nothing funny about love”), but the line between coherent thought and free rambling is, and always has been, hard to draw for Byrne. It’s not hard to imagine that he had hundreds of these four-line stanzas in his head, and with that the album’s perceived feeling of importance wanes due to the sometimes nonsensical nature of the whole thing: how often are the contradictions he’s painting on this album intentional? I think frequently AMERICAN UTOPIA “feels” important because of who Byrne is and the subject matter at hand, but that feeling can only go so far.
I mentioned earlier about demystifying Byrne for a new generation, but do not misinterpret that comment into thinking I believe it necessary to do so, as his aloofness and genius are both worthy of mystery even if the loftiness of it might seem distancing or unobtainable. AMERICAN UTOPIA somewhat obviously displays that genius and can’t communicate it, failing to live up to the loftiness of both his own work and the perceived importance of his established themes. Sometimes the album gets close to finding that blasé Afrofunk that some of Byrne’s best solo work has lived in, and highlights like “Gasoline and Dirty Sheets” and “Everybody’s Coming To My House” are fun even if they feel somewhat empty. The album’s high point, a relatively dynamic and rolling track called “Doing The Right Thing,” feels very at home for Byrne, yet somewhat contextually uninteresting so late on the album. AMERICAN UTOPIA is occasionally fascinating in how messy it is, but too frequently veers into shruggably boring. David Byrne should never be empty or boring.
Verdict: Do Not Recommend