Photo: Jody Rogac
By Bryce Nolan
I once wrote that judging offspring musicians within the shadows of their parents is an unhelpful practice when attempting to judge their worth. Likewise, I think that measuring an artist’s solo career against his or her accomplishments with a previous band is also rather problematic. If what you expect out of a solo album is more of a previous band’s music, then you honestly don’t get how bands work. This brings me to the latest album by former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, “American Utopia,” released March 9 on Todo Mundo and Nonesuch Records. And despite the album having a more serious tonal palette and more immediate subject matter than the music Byrne is best known for, the record maintains his reputation for unique alternative music like that which he built during the Talking Heads’ career.
The album begins with the quiet-loud-quiet roar of “I Dance Like This,” which features a jarring tonal shift between mournful yet slightly upbeat keyboards and the intense, thumping, reverberating chorus. This is about as assaulting as the album gets, as the other nine tracks tend toward the melodic, which suits Byrne’s nasally baritone voice well.
"From the stage of CBGB in New York City with the Talking Heads to collaborating with St. Vincent, Byrne’s work reaches across all genres and styles."
Full disclosure: The lyrics here, especially on the first half of the album, lean toward borderline absurdist imagery involving animals in transcendental experiences. That may not be surprising for anyone who’s listened to the Talking Heads before, but even for Byrne, this is out there. (Trust me, that’s saying something.) I won’t blame you if you laugh out loud to lines like “the chicken imagines a heaven with roosters and plenty of corn” and “cockroach might eat Mona Lisa” on the otherwise more-or-less coherent and peppy “Every Day Is A Miracle,” which is one of the best songs on the album.
If you read my first album recommendation article, then you’re aware of the collaboration Byrne did with musician Brian Eno, “Everything That Happens Will Happen Today,” a slightly off-kilter album built upon rhythmic density and alternative instrument choice. There are similar sentiments on display on this album: swooping song intros, jolting string lines and the occasional shouted chorus line. Though with Byrne cranking up the wackiness of the song structure and lyrical content, those of you who enjoyed the Byrne/Eno collaboration might be turned off to this record if that’s too much for you.
David Byrne’s latest effort is a long-awaited return by one of the world’s most important musical innovators. From the stage of CBGB in New York City with the Talking Heads to collaborating with St. Vincent, Byrne’s work reaches across all genres and styles. Here, he delivers both a solid rock album and a daring musical experiment aimed at bringing joy back into a world that seems to be losing more and more of it by the day.
I give “American Utopia” four out of five stars.