GoldenPlec: David Byrne - American Utopia Album Review
Written by James Fleming
Eddie Izzard claimed Europe "...could be the biggest melting pot in the world!” And Rome, Athens, Paris, Berlin, are all undeniably cradles of civilisation. Where the 21st century was begun centuries ago, built by ingenious hands across many years. The starting point for the Western world’s expansion across the earth’s surface.
But America was the promised land. And for many it still is, as the constant influx of people from all earthly realms testifies. With all these people and their cultures, customs, Gods and languages, America could be a melting pot of ideas to rival even the Old World.
David Byrne’s ‘American Utopia’ grooves like pan-global liquid metal rolling around the blacksmith’s forge. Like his best work with Talking Heads, Byrne’s Utopia is welcoming to all musical influences indiscriminate of creed, colour or gender. And like all of Byrne’s best work, its determinedly quirky, eccentric and individualistic.
Synthesisers swirl and swoop across the ten tracks. Doing The Right Thing combines the disco-inflected beats of Afrika Bambaataa with Byrne’s signature neurotic caucasian twitch. Hand drums emphasise the floor-friendly groove and when the synth solo comes in, so gloriously retro, limbs shimmy along and heads nod in agreement. Contented and peacefully lost.
This ‘American Utopia’ is far from the real deal. The USA is far from contented but lost in pointless wars with far-flung lands and itself. It clings to its reputation as the promised land by the tips of its fingers. This LP is but one of those heroic digits.
In the wake of the Parkland school shooting just a month ago, to hear a song begin with the line “The bullet went into him”, is a refreshingly provoking experience. Bullet is a song that pulls no punches, melancholy synthesisers swim under the graphic lyrics and the processed beat is appropriately dead sounding. Byrne will make barely a few cents off that one track, unlike the NRA-backed politicians/owners of the USA. But for the people who hear it, it will be a listening experience unlikely to be forgotten.
Closing track Here is a melding of Byrne’s Eno-influences and the world music he loves so. Atmospheric, danceable and uplifting, where despair could pervade, hope sprouts. “Here is a region that keeps on living,” a land that refuses to give up against the nigh-insurmountable odds.
‘American Utopia’ opens with I Dance Like This, a declaration of independence to make Jefferson and Co. green with envy. It’s title is juxtaposed with the robotic chorus “we dance like this/ ‘cause it feels so damn good.” Where the crowd moves one way Byrne pushes in the opposite direction. Where the distinctly dystopian, 1984-esque state of America today provided the inspiration, Byrne wrote his own utopia. It’s one with sly lyrics and infectious rhythms, a combination not even Supreme Overlord Donald can fight.