Written by Carl Zabat
David Byrne has tried and succeeded in a variety of musical endeavors throughout his long career: Oscar-winning music for “The Last Emperor” and a place in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, just to name a couple. With his latest release, American Utopia, Byrne attempts to depict the world we live in today according to his own press release for the record. Unless he thinks the world is weird, unclear and mostly dull, he hasn’t succeeded in creating a cohesive and fulfilling album. Byrne fires on all fronts for American Utopia, but after every intriguing string arrangement and animal-referencing lyric, he has only created an odd mess.
The production, spearheaded by longtime collaborator Brian Eno, moves in and out of low- and mid-tempo grooves with all sorts of instruments and sounds along the way. The instrumentals hold up fairly well, and Byrne and Eno create effectively interesting spaces between notes. “Doing the Right Thing” is a stand-out: It is a collage of electronic production and traditional instruments. Highlight track “Everybody’s Coming to My House” features a spooky saxophone arrangement that preludes a traditional rock band groove that is sprinkled with percussion.
As a whole, though, American Utopia simply isn’t captivating enough to retain interest past a few listens at most. The silence between notes does a good job of creating a spacey and eccentric world, but by the end of the album, it’s clear that the few initial ideas that worked are worn out. Closing track “Here” is one of the slowest and most minimalist tracks on the album but doesn’t add anything to the final product, except a desire for it to be over.
Byrne’s distinct voice also adds flavor, and while it is always sharp in its delivery, it sometimes leaves a weird taste in the mouth. When the production is at its most unconventional, Byrne’s voice rises to meet it, for better and for worse.
The biggest detractor of the entire record, however, lies in Byrne’s strange and unclear lyrics. “Every Day is a Miracle” has a fun bassline and chorus, but upon hearing the lyric “And elephants don't read newspapers/And the kiss of a chicken is hot,” the song went south rather quickly. Later, in the track “Bullet,” each four-line phrase is unique, yet there is little coherence between all of them other than their format.
The best parts of American Utopia are creative and fun, but they are not unforgettably creative or a large amount of fun besides a couple of exceptions. “Everybody’s Coming to My House” is the best material and only “Gasoline and Dirty Sheets” comes close to it. Every other promising aspect in a song is bogged down by Byrne’s scatterbrained lyrics or instrumentals that fail to really entrance. Opening track “I Dance Like This” plays with a piano-led verse and a throbbing bass chorus, but neither idea is quite enough to save the other, and these two wrongs don’t make a right. “Doing the Right Thing” has ornate production between a backing guitar and lush strings, yet the third verse has little to no lyrical place alongside the rest of the song.
David Byrne may be one of rock’s more eccentric voices, but with American Utopia eccentricity rarely equates to quality.
Final Grade: C-