Album Review: David Byrne – American Utopia

There is something contradictory and wonderful regarding American Utopia, the new album from the former Talking Heads leader, David Byrne. One could see the words ‘American’ and ‘Utopia’ and feel this is a political shot or misnomer: how could a nation that has the bloated human-tangerine Donald Trump in the White House create utopia and communicative harmony?

David Byrne - American Utopia artworkCynics would read too much into the title; those who know what Byrne is trying to create know differently. He has been promoting the project Reasons to be Cheerful. The idea is to promote good-news stories and focus on genuine optimism: an antidote to the relentless stream of downbeat and depression. Whereas Byrne’s latest solo album – his first in fourteen years, no less! – investigates spiritual nourishment and the average person’s role in life, it brings a lot to the party and breaks new ground along the way. The ever-inventive musician’s 2012 co-creation with St. Vincent, Love This Giant, proved the Scottish-born 65 year-old could not be easily predicted: American Utopia underlines that and throws a boar spear into the belly of idle competition and lacklustre peers.

‘I Dance Like This’ starts like a ballet with a calm head and austere brow. Byrne’s voice is unusually concentrated and grave and joined by a bellicose beat and an encroaching shadow. The composition grows heavy as the hero sings about dislocation and looking for a home, lost in the city and disconnected. Suddenly, it all bursts into life. It’s robotic and frantic, rushing and energised; retreating back to its piano-led swoon (Tom Waits-like, in fact), the listener is pulled apart and in two minds. He digs into the psyche and investigates social disharmony and ambitions – although, it could be a metaphor for his place in life. ‘Every Day Is a Miracle’ is an early highlight that, again, throws in shapeshifting sounds. Corn, God (as a rooster) and eggs (‘like Jesus his son’) are placed together as Byrne talks about every day being a blessing and chance for a new focus. The track mixes reggae vibes into the traditional Byrne-Talking Heads blend we all know and love. The ‘dick of a donkey and the ‘brain of a chicken’ are ideas one would not hear the likes of One Direction and Craig David talk about – they seem strangely natural in the context of American Utopia! Byrne’s combination of wit and theological pondering brings byzantine and oblique angles to the fore, making the listener think and imagine.

‘Dog’s Mind’, keeping the animal theme alive, makes me think about the connections and use of creatures to explain human rationale and the place we hold in the universe. Before the song began, I was thinking about foolishness and immaturity – man acting like a dog and not thinking of consequence. The President is in the docks and there is a ‘photo opportunity’; reality is fiction and, in this new place, the dogs play down in the park. The dog cannot imagine, as Byrne says, what it is like to drive a car. We are canines in our paradise – puppets and morsels for the gods to play with. In essence, though, we are happy as a dog, obliviously skipping in a world of our own with the US songwriter projecting a hopeful, carefree message for the people. ‘This Is That’ is one of the most sonically engaging works, yet there seems to be something missing. It’s a curious blend of stark beats and glistening notes with Byrne’s voice firm and up-front. It is a strong and original number but, against the other phenomenal songs on the album, not quite as  striking. To call the song ‘weak’ would be a mistake: it has its moments but did not linger long in my mind.

‘Bullet’ is a better example of David Byrne’s new phase and energy, with lyrics that vividly describe the path of a bullet through a victim mixed with sublime vocals and quirky composition notes. The images pour as violently as the blood while the mind wonders and speculates – is this the forensic view of a shooting or a metaphor for liberty and personal freedom? The song is not as explosive and unexpected as some on the album but its focus and level-headed approach is what makes it so strong. ‘Doing the Right Thing’ is another song with a serious brow – Byrne asks what he should do, questions why he always does the right thing and whether that is a sage approach. Strings whip in and sparse, bongo-like beats add eccentric fizzes into the palette. It is a stop-start song that captures you in its vice and then spits you out. The song gets heavier and deliriously fast. Electronic beats race and the listener is sucked into the abyss – albeit, one that seems exciting and safe. It is an entrancing and thought-provoking track that delves into the author’s mind, a moment that can be extrapolated by each listener and moulded in their vision.

‘Everybody’s Coming to My House’ is a natural highlight and pre-released single – a strange and delightful swagger of a song that is as catchy as it is kooky. It is hard to argue with the sentiments being put forward: we ALL want to go to Byrne’s house and experience what he sees. The lyrics force you to think more deeply and what the images all represent. The house and party, the doors and people – are they symbols for something deeper and unexpected? The questions remain throughout ‘Here’, a sumptuous and grand finale that builds up and keeps the listener hooked at every stage. Invigorating and darting beats are at the heart with echoing, vocal-like strings and all manner of strange scents. Byrne talks about regions seldom-used and breathing, together despite separation – perhaps a look at war-torn nations and richer countries that ignore what is happening in these parts. People look at these scenes and look at their loved ones, and they are safe where they are and should count themselves lucky – perhaps a good a closing statement and album definition if anything!

American Utopia is an album that naturally follows from the likes of Everything That Happens Will Happen Today  and Look into the Eyeball. It is not Byrne’s finest work – either solo or Talking Heads – but it is very much an album for now. The idea of being thankful and creating something positive seems alien at a time when everything from bad weather to nuclear threats dominates the news. American Utopia is an alternative ray of heat that does not damage the environment. It is the legendary songwriter exploring new ground and, with it, forging something genuinely inspiring and unique. For someone who has been recording albums for forty years – that is no minor compliment at all! American Utopia will take a while before all of its ideas, sounds and expressions fully embed and resonate. When they do, they are likely to move the senses and provoke the mind in ways no other album can (or ever will!).