David Byrne, whose newest solo album American Utopia came out on March 9th, has had a long career, spanning four decades. Since starting to record with the easily-overlooked but era-defining Talking Heads, who were one of a number of 70s and 80s bands, including Roxy Music, whose musical footprint is a lot bigger than your record collection might suggest, he’s been part of some of the greatest recordings and musical productions of the last 40 years.
Byrne’s last few albums – 2008’s Everything That Happens Will Happen Today (with Roxy Music’s Brian Eno), 2010’s Here Lies Love (with 90’s DJ legend Norman Cook), and 2012’s Love This Giant (with St. Vincent) – have all been collaborations, making American Utopia his first solo album for 14 years. The hiatus hasn’t been quiet, taking in these collaborations as well as books (How Music Works), films (This Must Be The Place), and the kind of weird pop-art-spectacle which we need from elder statesmen of rock: Playing the Building, for which he literally, madly, beautifully, managed to turn Manhattan’s Battery Maritime Building into a publically playable instrument.
Byrne is now at a phase in his career which sees many artists turn reflective, whether climbing on the endless money merry-go-round of the classic rock stadium tour or releasing remasters of their old classics; the safe pasture of a whole generation of one-time hell-raisers. With American Utopia, Byrne has taken a different approach, which it’s not going too far to describe as a huge leap of faith. It’s a risk that may (or may not) have paid off; but Byrne doesn’t seem too bothered either way.
The album is, to put it simply, difficult. Not ‘difficult’ as in ‘play-it-to-pretend-you-like-late-period-Coltrane’ difficult; just a weirder and less categorizable proposition than most were expecting. It’s undeniable that in some places, Byrne’s reach exceeds his grasp, as on the archly-titled track, “Every Day is a Miracle,” whose wordplay (“The brain of a chicken and the dick of a donkey”) might be suited to other cultural voices in our dumbed-down age, but only by sinking to their level; while elsewhere, the drunken-legged audio adornments on “It’s Not Dark Up Here” ask you to buy in before you see where he’s going, and trust him for the trip. In that case, it isn’t.
But in others, it really, really is. “Doing the Right Thing” starts off with some smooth strings, and builds with a rising tempo to the rarest thing in contemporary music: unpretentious prog rock (on synths!) which manages to be as interesting to its audience as it is to its composer. The next track, “Everybody’s Coming to My House,” is another beautifully-composed piece where Bryne gets his satirical mojo back, backed by post-punk guitar and party horns. If you pull through the rest of the album to reach this splendid end, your efforts pay off in a big way.
It’s easy to forget all the different challenges of making any recording for an artist in the fifth decade of their career; you’re not just making music for your audience here and now, but for the journey they, and you, have been on since everyone was younger. American Utopia is a success, even with its strange digressions and unlanded ideas; it’s the sight of a great artist giving us everything they’ve got, including their willingness to take risks. It may not rise to instant-classic status but it’s easy to suspect that American Utopia is going to feel like something special roundabout that hundredth-play mark. Time will tell.