By Jon Pareles
Is modern life a mess or a miracle? David Byrne can't decide, and for nearly two decades, first as the Talking Heads' leader and then on his own, he has turned his ambivalence into songs that veer from giddiness to despair, from withdrawal to engagement, from mourning to celebration. Few rockers are better at playing the wide-eyed innocent who's anything but naive. At the Supper Club in the theater district on Wednesday, he luxuriated in conflicting impulses, letting songs contradict each other while the music lilted and romped.
Mr. Byrne is not fleeing the Talking Heads anymore. After the band dissolved in the late 1980's, Mr. Byrne used his solo albums to experiment with Afro-Caribbean rhythms, distinct from the early Heads' crisp rock and funk. But with his new album, "David Byrne" (Luaka Bop/Sire/ Warner Brothers), and with the four-man band he led on Wednesday night, Mr. Byrne has integrated his distant and recent past.
In a two-hour set, Mr. Byrne revived Talking Heads gems like "And She Was," "Once in a Lifetime" and, from 1977, "Don't Worry About the Government." They're songs about everyday life transformed by a shift in perspective. Mr. Byrne also performed most of the songs from his new album and some more recent, unrecorded songs, unconcerned that some (like "Back in the Box") harked back to the early Heads while others slipped Caribbean syncopations into the stripped-down arrangements.
Mr. Byrne's voice is no longer the nervous squawk he started with; his high tenor sounds guileless until he turns it into a growl. And he has reclaimed his guitar playing; he's not a speedy soloist, but he knows where to place hooks, riffs and wah-wah textures. He was backed by Paul Socolow on bass, Todd Turkisher on drums and Mauro Refosco on mallet instruments, including one electronic xylophone that could sound like an organ or a synthesizer. The band started on acoustic instruments and hand-held percussion, then plugged in to play rock, funk, pop-flamenco (in a new song) and Zairian soukous.
In some recent songs, like the bossa nova "My Love Is You," Mr. Byrne drops his ironic distance, and he extended that openness to explain some older material. Before singing "This Must Be the Place," a song about home, he listed each of his childhood homes. But sincerity isn't Mr. Byrne's strongest gambit; he can be didactic and earthbound. He does better depicting enigmatic epiphanies, like the ones in the eerie "Strange Ritual." "Saw a skyscraper made out of abandoned cars," he muses, and later he marvels at "a French corporation that doesn't make anything!"
He also comes up with cracked but all-American characters. An unrecorded song, "Ready for This World," could be an improved, late-breaking sequel to the Talking Heads' "Psycho Killer." In perfectly casual tones, Mr. Byrne announced: "I've got a gun! It's just for self-defense," then vowed, "No one's going to hurt me again." For the moment, Mr. Byrne hasn't radically expanded his music. But he shuffles and reshuffles his old ideas with charm and assurance, still finding mystery in the ordinary.