By John Constine
David Byrne is unable to tell a simplified story. While everyone else imagines heaven as a one-dimensional paradise, the Talking Heads frontman envisions an impossible place frozen in a perfect, repeating kiss. He applies this mastery of questions without clear-cut answers to Big Love: Hymnal, a score to HBO’s series about the thorny issue of polygamy. Using a fixed suite of prairie guitars, sweeping strings, regal horns, and dainty xylophone and piano tones, Byrne produces a wide breadth of emotions. At times pensive and ominous, at others curious and wistful, Big Love: Hymnal sets the scene so vividly that listeners are able to re-imagine the story for themselves.
The HBO drama Big Love follows Bill Paxton’s character trying to balance and conceal three wives, an amalgamated set of kids, and his role in the Mormon dominated suburbs of Salt Lake City. The show’s explorations of a family trying to reconcile their beliefs with the encroaching modern world are clearly expressed in Byrne’s score, which he’s described as an array of forged Mormon church hymns. The album’s opener “Art Thou Greater Than He?” immediately conjures the big, unspoiled Utah plateau, lonesome but full of opportunity. One of the few tracks steered by his voice, Byrne’s croon lends the song warmth and guidance. Elsewhere, “Exquisite Whiteness” embodies an unhurried stroll past quaint storefronts in a dusty Old West town, the clop-clop of horse and buggy almost audible in the cello plucks. And the comfort of holidays gathered round the fire resounds through “Written On Golden Plates,” which would fit nicely on a Sufjan Stevens Christmas album.
But despite white picket fences and Sunday’s best clothes, something almost sinister looms behind the curtains in Sandy, Utah. Byrne delivers tension and the unsettling feeling of immorality on some of the compositions, but he never judges nor makes the depravity explicit. “A Building in the Air” watches storm clouds rolling in, an eerie, foreshadowing gust of dulcimer notes rustling the trees. Deep in the basement, a grab for power is calculated to the pensive, scheduled marimba chords of “A Persecution Followed.” While we don’t get to hear the scheme enacted, Byrne’s foreboding interpretations should keep the suspense high until the show’s third season begins January 2009.
Indeed, Big Love: Hymnal is lush and transporting, but the accompaniments are modest. Refusing to steal the scenes, the old Psycho Killer stays muzzled, communicating through reassuring or menacing subtext rather than through the lingering melodies and swelling choruses of which he’s capable. Alongside his forthcoming release with Brian Eno, it seems David is in another of his atmospheric moods. Whether offering these hummed lullabies or his crafted bedtime stories, David Byrne can still let loose our imaginations.