By Andy Beta
Viva Brother, Terris, Mansun, the Twang, Joe Lean & the Jing Jang Jong—all decidedly non-legacy acts that the NME has historically (and hysterically) hyperbolized during its nearly seven decade run. So leave it to the ever-clever David Byrne to grab a Niagara-Falls-of-a-gusher pull-quote from an NME live review and emblazon it on his new EP, complete with attribution. Byrne’s long legacy means he’s already responsible for one of the great live albums of the punk era as well as one of the best concert films of all time, and even the concert bootlegs are rightly revered. But Byrne is that rare legacy artist careful not to cash in on his longevity, avoiding all talk of Talking Heads reunions and constantly challenging himself with collaborations—be it St. Vincent or Fatboy Slim—while continuing to chase passions both old and new down unlikely rabbit holes.
Last year’s American Utopia, his first solo album in 14 years, might not have been his most formidable work, but it gave him impetus to stage his most lavish touring production since the era of Stop Making Sense. A dervish of 12 performers and percussionists, this tour drew from Byrne’s formidable songbook along with his most recent effort, accentuating his at times oddly optimistic outlook at our current predicament. As yet another NME post put it, the show “captured 2018’s zeitgeist of inclusivity, diversity, positivity, alienation and paranoia... redefin[ing] the concept of a live musical performance.” No doubt Byrne’s love of color-guard performances rubbed off on his own live presentation. This particular recording gathers six selections from a show at Kings Theatre in Brooklyn.
If only there were a way for “...The Best Live Show of All Time” —NME to properly capture that zesty event. There’s no doubt that any experience of the ecstatic Dada garble of Talking Heads’ funk bomb “I Zimbra” is awesome. But without the barefoot synchronized moves and matching silver suits that accompanied this presentation, the song’s manic energy isn’t quite captured on tape. The twitchy, mid-1980s minor hit “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)”—part country, part township jive—fares better here, its lilt kept intact.
While on the surface they display the same rhythmic buoyancy as the classic material, Byrne’s more recent songs suffer in comparison. The zouk-y, dancehall-lite of Utopia’s “Every Day Is a Miracle” bears the kind of aslant yet catchy chorus of latter-day Heads, while the lyrics (“The brain of a chicken/And the dick of a donkey/A pig in a blanket/And that’s why you want me”) remain cringeworthy. At a time when doubt, disillusionment, climate catastrophe, and the pall of nuclear annihilation can consume our every waking day, it’s worth remembering that few lyricists captured the dystopian dread and cognitive dissonance of the Cold War ’80s better than Byrne on Remain in Light. But in 2018 Byrne’s song involving the president and a state “where reality is fiction” instead finds him waxing about “doggy dancers doing doody” instead. Much like that NME tag itself, it feels ludicrously ahistorical.