Album Of The Week: David Byrne American Utopia
One Tuesday morning, just a little under 10 years ago, my wife and I learned that she was pregnant. I didn’t know what the fuck to do with this information. I couldn’t process it. It didn’t seem real. For a longer-than-probably-appropriate time, I convinced myself that it wasn’t real, that the pregnancy test had somehow fucked up. I should’ve held my wife’s hand through that moment of transition, supporting her and letting her know that everything was going to be OK. Instead, she pretty much did that for me. And then we both went off to work. It was, after all, a Tuesday morning, and you aren’t supposed to tell anyone about pregnancies until they’re a lot further along. On my way to work that morning, I robotically put Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, David Byrne and Brian Eno’s collaborative album, on my iPod — not for any real special reason, but because it had just come out and because I’d been listening to it a lot around then. And that, in a weird way, is when the entire seismic shift in my life became real.
If you’ve never heard Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, you should. It’s a beautiful piece of work, a strange and twitchy and gorgeous album. Its songs aren’t about anything; they’re simply headblown musings about the world. But in the confused and denial-plagued headspace where I found myself on that one Tuesday morning, Byrne’s lyrics sounded like precious drops of elliptical wisdom: “Everything that happens will happen today / And nothing has changed, but nothing’s the same.” About halfway into the album, there’s a part where Byrne quietly crows, “Everybody’s happy to be a baby daddy.” I don’t know what he hoped to convey, what he was thinking about when he wrote it. But in that moment, it was exactly what I needed to hear. The confusion, the money-stress, the suddenly incomprehensible prospect of my own immediate future — all that melted away in an instant (temporarily, anyway), and this guy reminded me that wonderful and amazing things were about to happen in my life.
David Byrne has a way of doing that, of bursting out with strange insight that punches you in the gut when you may not be expecting it. He could’ve been granting moments like that to suddenly expectant parents for 40-plus years. If my parents had a moment like that with my own birth looming, it could’ve been set to something that Byrne wrote. (That’s if my parents were cooler. As it was, if they did have that moment, it was probably set to Arlo Guthrie or some shit.) American Utopia, Byrne’s new album, doesn’t have any moments that have fucked me up in the same way, but that has a whole lot more to do with me than it does with Byrne. It’s full of moments that certainly could fuck you up if you heard them at the right time of your life.
If American Utopia has one stomach-punch change-your-life song, it’s probably “Every Day Is A Miracle,” a song that ponders questions that you might’ve never even thought to ask: “Now the chicken imagines a heaven / Full of roosters and plenty of corn / And God is a very old rooster / And eggs are like Jesus, his son.” Byrne sings a lot about animals, and whenever he does, he brings his own dizzy logic to it. Byrne’s ideas go way beyond the idea that we can never truly know another person’s mind. They get into inter-species stuff, into how fundamentally unknowable the world is: “A cockroach might eat Mona Lisa / The Pope don’t mean shit to a dog.” One song later, he makes that theme a little more plain: “Now a dog cannot imagine what it is to drive a car / And we, in turn, are limited by what it is we are.”
That’s a profound moment, and it comes in the context of a song that, at least as it’s beginning, is about some sort of political calamity: “The judge was all hungover when the president took the stand / So he didn’t really notice when things got out of hand.” But the particulars of the scandal, if that’s even what it is, don’t interest Byrne at all. He cares more about what the beleaguered office functionaries looking out their windows, seeing dogs, and realizing that none of it matters. That’s how Byrne’s brain works, and it’s how his sense of humor works, too. Byrne always zigs when it seems like he’s about to zag, and the sheer unpredictability of American Utopia is a huge part of the joy in it. (This is an album where Byrne, beloved elder statesman of American smart-kid music, rhymes “the dick of a donkey” with “that’s why you want me.”)
Byrne’s never been an explicitly political artist, but that side has always been there. And to call an album American Utopia during this particularly dystopian moment is akin to making “Life During Wartime” during the height of Reagan-era nuclear anxiety. Byrne never sings about Donald Trump or anything, even though the album does occasionally stray into on-the-nose commentary about our culture of convenience (“Vacuum packed don’t rock my world / And the money-back guarantee don’t make my day”). But Byrne still has things to tell us about the way the world works. Consider “Bullet.” It’s a song about a bullet shooting its way through a person’s body, snuffing out a life a little more as it passes through every organ: “The bullet went into him / Through his heart, with thoughts of you / Where your kisses he inhaled / The lies and the truth.” It’s a sad song, but it’s not tense or angry. It’s serene, Byrne laying all this bodily devastation out as a simple matter of fact. It’s a profoundly calming song about violent death, and we don’t exactly get many of those, do we?
Much of the press around American Utopia seems to be revolving around the various people who contributed to it. And it’s true; there’s a fascinating and astonishing level of talent on display. Nearly as much as Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, American Utopia represents a collaboration between Byrne and his old comrade Brian Eno. Eno gets co-writing credit on most of the album’s songs, and the album’s credits says that it’s “based on original tracks” by Eno. But a whole lot of younger people also helped out. Daniel Lopatin, better known to most of us as the queasy drone titan Oneohtrix Point Never, was heavily involved in the album’s production, and he gets writing credits, too. At various points, the credits also include people like Sampha, Ariel Rechtshaid, Jam City, Doveman, the xx producer Rodaidh McDonald, and Onyx Collective’s Isaiah Barr. There are legends on this album, and there are young dance producers whose names I barely recognize. It’s quite a collection. (No women contribute, but, to Byrne’s credit, he issued an embarrassed statement when someone pointed that out to him.)
But this isn’t a glorified compilation. Byrne is a great collaborator, someone who’s always been down to lend his voice to just about any song that he finds interesting. (In a Pitchfork review, I once called Byrne “the type who would show up to the studio if you promised [him] a half-empty bag of Doritos,” and Byrne later brought it up in an interview: “The online music magazine Pitchfork once wrote that I would collaborate with anyone for a bag of Doritos. This wasn’t intended as a compliment — though, to be honest, it’s not that far from the truth.” Sorry, David Byrne!)
On American Utopia, everyone is here to serve David Byrne’s vision. They’ve created a sound that sparkles and pulsates in gorgeously sidelong ways. Latin-disco counter-rhythms fight for space with glassily ambient keyboards and skittering, burping sound effects. On “It’s Not Dark Up Here,” someone puts a weird filter on Byrne’ voice as he bellows — “Heyyyyy!” — and it makes him sound like a Muppet. “Dog’s Mind” uses a synth chime that sounds very much like an Apple computer booting up. This is a busy, disorienting sound, and there are moments where it gets too busy, where I wish Byrne wouldn’t be quite so relentlessly exploratory with his sound. But it’s a sound that makes its own kind of sense, and its moments of beauty, when Byrne just lets his melodies shine through, are transcendent. Maybe they’re even transcendent enough that, if the conditions are right, they could turn your whole life around. Nothing has changed, but nothing’s the same.
Other albums of note out this week:
• The gorgeous self-titled debut from the Common/Robert Glasper/Karriem Riggins supergroup August Greene.
• Young Fathers’ expressionist polygenre scorcher Cocoa Sugar.
• Jonny Greenwood’s score for the movie You Were Never Really Here.
• Oneida’s fierce, seasoned psych-rocker Romance.
• of Montreal’s glam-prog bugout White Is Relic/Irrealis Mood.
• Nap Eyes’ hazily adventurous I’m Bad Now.
• Albert Hammond Jr.’s amiable solo LP Francis Trouble.
• Teenage Wrist’s shoegazey emo debut Chrome Neon Jesus.
• Liza Anne’s tunefully sparse debut Fine But Dying.
• Lushlife/Botany duo the Skull Ecliposes’ self-titled debut.
• Ministry’s vengeful industrial riot AmeriKKKant.
• Kraus’ intense shoegazer Path.
• Drowse’s swirling, haunted Cold Air.
• Erasure’s could-do-this-in-their-sleep synthpopper World Beyond.
• Editors’ Brit-rocking return Violence.
• Starkweather and Concealment’s split.