By John Pareles
Here's one way for strong musical personalities to work together amicably: Keep your distance.
David Byrne and Brian Eno were the songwriter and producer on the most radical albums by Talking Heads, and they collaborated on a 1981 album, “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.” Now, 27 years later, they have reunited to make their second duo album, “Everything That Happens Will Happen Today.” It is being released digitally on Aug. 18 via everythingthathappens.com, a month later on major commercial download sites and, as soon as it can be manufactured and distributed, as a physical CD.
For most of the album’s yearlong process the songwriting partners were an ocean apart, Mr. Eno in London and Mr. Byrne in New York City, though both are globe-hoppers. They also kept their jobs separate. By and large, Mr. Eno provided the music, and Mr. Byrne topped it with melodies, words and vocals.
“We didn’t really talk to each other,” Mr. Eno said. “We used e-mail, the modern way of recording. I could spend as long as I wanted on the music. And he wasn’t under any pressure to do something with me sitting there drumming my fingers.”
Mr. Byrne and Mr. Eno do get along, however. A few weeks ago, Mr. Eno visited New York to brainstorm with Mr. Byrne over last-minute musical tweaks and the details of releasing the album independently — a sensible choice given its home-studio recording budget and their combined fame. Over bottled water and slices of watermelon at Todomundo, the SoHo office coordinating Mr. Byrne’s visual-arts and musical projects, Mr. Eno and Mr. Byrne chatted jovially about the latest intersection of their two prolific careers. A large fish mounted on a plaque — caught, Mr. Byrne admitted, at a flea market — presided overhead.
Mr. Byrne and Mr. Eno didn’t treat “Everything That Happens” as a momentous reunion. “Strange Overtones,” a song available as a free download, teases their own songwriting: “This groove is out of fashion/These beats are 20 years old.” (The song was downloaded 40,000 times in the first three days it was available.)
As for the weight of their achievements, “I didn’t think about it,” Mr. Eno said. “This was just something new.” Mr. Byrne said he looked back only enough to assure himself that the new tracks weren’t overly similar to their past collaborations. But now that the album is made, he has decided to tour this fall with material spanning his collaborations with Mr. Eno, from Talking Heads songs to the new album.
Mr. Byrne and Mr. Eno have been consistent pipelines between pop and various avant-gardes. Mr. Eno is probably best known as the producer for David Bowie, U2 and lately Paul Simon and Coldplay, creating eerie sounds while honing the hooks. But he also has an extensive catalog of his own albums of songs and ambient music, full of ideas and sounds that have been periodically rediscovered. In the art world, Mr. Eno has created numerous video and sound projects and installations. He had four simultaneous gallery shows in July. He has also been recording with the keyboardist Herbie Hancock.
Mr. Byrne led Talking Heads, one of the pioneering punk-era bands at CBGB, from sparse new wave through dizzying Afro-funk and twisted Americana, sounds that have been revived lately by indie rockers like Vampire Weekend.
Well before Talking Heads officially disbanded in 1991, Mr. Byrne had begun a busy solo career that has encompassed song albums, soundtrack scores, films and artworks like his current installation, “Playing the Building.” It uses an old pump organ to trigger clanks, hoots and scrapes from the structure of the decrepit Battery Maritime Building in Lower Manhattan, where it runs through Aug. 24. Mr. Byrne also has another album being released this month: “Big Love: Hymnal” (Todomundo/HBO/Playtone), of his instrumental music for the HBO series about Mormon polygamists. And he is completing an opera about Imelda Marcos with Fatboy Slim and 22 guest vocalists.
Mr. Byrne and Mr. Eno didn’t sing on “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.” That album set vocals they had collected — from radio preachers, talk shows and Arabic pop songs, among other sources — to their own skewed funk tracks. It opened a path that countless dance-music producers (notably Moby) would follow.
When “Bush of Ghosts” was reissued on its 25th anniversary, Mr. Byrne and Mr. Eno casually considered a new project. Mr. Eno had some potential songs but hadn’t come up with lyrics he liked. Mr. Byrne agreed to see what he might add.
The new album is by no means a sequel to “Bush of Ghosts.” It is, in a way, more conventional: a set of songs, with verses and choruses, placing Mr. Byrne’s lead vocals up front with Mr. Eno’s voice occasionally in the background. Most songs are in major keys, using just three or four chords — different from the more elaborate pop songs Mr. Byrne had been writing. “I think minor chords fill in too much of the picture already,” Mr. Eno said. “They push you into a certain place. You can make major chords sound sad, but you can never make minor chords sound happy.”
Those major chords link the new album both to Mr. Eno’s warmest (or least abrasive) album of songs, “Before and After Science,” and to Talking Heads albums like “Little Creatures.” The simplicity of the structures — though not of the sounds, which Mr. Eno has, as usual, streaked with the amorphous and the unstable — made Mr. Byrne hear what he called “a folk-gospel thing.” To his own surprise, that pushed the lyrics toward optimism and a sense of faith. In “Life Is Long,” he sings, “I’m lost, but I’m not afraid.”
Mr. Byrne has long been fascinated by belief and its expressions. He and Talking Heads introduced Mr. Eno to gospel music, and the lyrics to the new album are sprinkled with biblical allusions. “Big Love: Hymnal” has stately pieces with strings and horns that sound humbly reverent.
Asked about spirituality in his music, Mr. Byrne said: “I’m always thinking about it but not overtly. That might frighten me. Probably like a lot of people, I feel alienated from the traditional models that were presented when I was a child, and eventually I left those and said, ‘That doesn’t seem relevant to me.’ But I, like a lot of people, felt that as human beings we have some longing for transcending things in some way, shape or form.”
On the new album Mr. Byrne’s lyrics are filled with images of catastrophe of redemption, balancing dread and affirmation. The music tilts the songs toward hope. Mr. Byrne said, “I thought, if I can write lyrics that emphasize that kind of uplift but then express the other stuff that’s going on as well, then it will seem like the music and the words and all the other stuff all belong together and came out of one mind, as opposed to being artificially stuck together.”
Eventually, Mr. Eno ran out of major-key songs and started sending Mr. Byrne odder, trickier tracks — like the ominous funk of “I Feel My Stuff,” with Mr. Eno doing vocal beat-boxing behind skittering, computer-skewed notes credited as “inhuman piano.”
“There were things that I didn’t think belonged in the same family at all.” Mr. Eno said. “I was surprised David could make songs out of them.”
“I wonder how far you could go with that,” Mr. Byrne mused.
“I might send you a track of the sound of a cheese grater,” Mr. Eno said, and Mr. Byrne barely skipped a beat.
“I could make a song out of that,” he vowed.