David Byrne’s American Triptych

Via Slate

Warner Bros.

By Keith Phipps

The 1978 Talking Heads album More Songs About Buildings and Food concludes with “The Big Country,” a song narrated by an airline passenger staring down from a window and not liking what he finds. After noting items like schools and houses and admitting, “I guess the air is clean,” the singer reaches a conclusion: “I wouldn’t live there if you paid me.”

It’s easy to read the song as an expression of disdain, of someone looking down on America both literally and figuratively. And it’s easy to assume that someone could be Byrne, who was at the time of its recording a twentysomething art student–turned–rock star who’d emerged from the creative explosion taking place in mid-’70s New York. But it’s never a great idea to mistake a song’s point of view for its singer’s, especially with Byrne, who’s often hard to find in his own lyrics and who’s kept circling back to that land he once sang about flying over. “The Big Country” now plays like the first part of a triptych on American themes, with American Utopia, Byrne’s 2018 album and accompanying tour at the other end.

And in the middle? True Stories, Byrne’s 1986 directorial debut and, to date, his only narrative film, a wide-eyed look at small-town Texas life that seems at first to be a complete reversal of “The Big Country’s” distant skepticism. “ ‘The Big Country’ is a curious song,” Byrne said recently by email. “If you look, the lyrics in the verses are more or less objective—there’s no disdain for the folks down there. It’s pure description; in fact, one could even say it’s sweet and bucolic, which makes the venom of the chorus more surprising (in my view). To me this song is about revealing the irrationality of that venom. True Stories is a very different animal.”

The movie earned him a Time cover (that the polymathic Byrne designed himself) and the headline “Rock’s Renaissance Man.” “If True Stories hits American films the way Talking Heads hit music,” the magazine’s Jay Cocks wrote, “things are going to be different around here. It’s going to be a wild, wild life.” It didn’t and it wasn’t, but True Stories did become a cult favorite, and the Criterion Collection’s reissue of the film—accompanied by the complete soundtrack album Byrne regretted never getting a chance to release—is a cause for celebration.

True Stories is set in the fictional town of Virgil, Texas, as it prepares a “Celebration of Specialness” to commemorate the state’s sesquicentennial. Outfitted in a cowboy hat and driving a convertible Chrysler LeBaron, Byrne serves as both fascinated outsider and chatty tour guide, drifting from location to location and discovering characters inspired in large part by headlines in the Weekly World News, a tabloid he grew fascinated by after picking it up as the Talking Heads toured America. There’s Louis Fyne (John Goodman), a sweet, lonely man who advertises for a wife on television and speaks of his “very consistent panda bear shape”; a Lying Woman (Jo Harvey Allen), who tells far-fetched stories tying her to every famous person and scandal in existence; the Culvers (Annie McEnroe and Spalding Gray), a well-respected and seemingly content couple who’ve communicated with each other only through their children for years; the lazy Miss Rollings (Swoosie Kurtz), who lives entirely in her bed; Mr. Tucker (soul singer “Pops” Staples), who works as a Voodoo priest when not tending to Miss Rollings; and Ramon (Tito Larriva), who works on a computer assembly line and picks up psychic “tones.”

(Ramon’s psychic experiences mirror those of Texas-born character actor Stephen Tobolowsky, who co-wrote the original screenplay with Pulitzer-winning playwright Beth Henley and inspired Byrne to write the song “Radio Head”—later appropriated by a group of English teenagers as a name for their new band. Tobolowsky talks about all this on a memorable episode of his autobiographical podcast The Tobolowsky Files.)

The film offers little in the way of plot but much in the way of atmosphere. Byrne is far more interested in observing than commenting on what he finds, be it tabloid oddities or the real facets of Texas life as it entered its 150th year, which included an emerging tech industry, suburban sprawl, and shopping malls. Byrne treats every aspect with the same straight-faced wonder—at least between the moments in which his characters break into song. Inasmuch as the film has an arc, it’s shaped by Louis’ composition of a song called “People Like Us,” a proud expression of salt-of-the-earth identity he performs at the climactic celebration alongside a number of actual amateur performers recruited for the film.

It’s a lovely moment, but there’s darkness sewn into it, too. “We don’t want freedom,” goes the chorus, “we don’t want justice, we just want someone to love.” Follow the implication of those lines too far, and they don’t go anywhere pleasant. “The lyric is maybe a little too on the nose,” Byrne writes now. “It tries a little too hard to make the point—the point that justice, for example, is a value liberals hold high, but lots of folks value love and family above that. I wanted folks—folks like me—to empathize with that point of view.”

That desire can be seen throughout True Stories, which approaches the desire to understand Reagan’s America as a kind of art project, reframing the mid-’80s in musical numbers examining its commercialism (“Love for Sale”) and oversaturated media (“Puzzlin’ Evidence”) and repurposing a sterile mall as the home to a wondrously odd fashion show. Its polite, observant distance makes it by turns lovely and eerie, as if Byrne wanted viewers to draw their own conclusions about what they’d seen but also wanted those conclusions to be as filled with as many mixed emotions as his own.

Two decades-plus later, Byrne is no longer so wide-eyed. American Utopia is filled with bits of familiar whimsy—one passage muses on a chicken’s conception of heaven—but there’s a darkness and disquieting immediacy even to the bouncy single “Everybody’s Coming to My House,” and another track, “Bullet,” uses Byrne’s gift for clinical detail to chilling effect. “She says that freedom costs too much,” the troubled protagonist of “Gasoline and Dirty Sheets” sings, and it sounds like someone being denied the freedom they want, rather than, like True Stories’ Louis, willingly trading it in for love.

American Utopia’s accompanying tour doubled down on the urgency, mixing songs from the album with thematically complementary tracks from Byrne’s entire career and staging them in an intricately choreographed, constantly moving show inspired by a fascination with color guard routines. Should the point be missed, Byrne has been closing the night with Janelle Monáe’s “Hell You Talmbout,” which catalogs the names of those killed in instances of racial injustice. “There might have been a time when some of us thought things would work out for the best by themselves, and we could simply vote and then get on with our lives,” Byrne writes. “But now, clearly, being a citizen requires more than that.” Simply flying over America and moving on is no longer an option, if it ever really was.

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