By Ron Nachmann
David Byrne's new album, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, did more than just reunite the Talking Heads singer with legendary U.K. producer Brian Eno. It also updated their nuanced take on the spiritual, both the realm and the genre. The pair initially used protosampling techniques to forge an otherworldly realm with their landmark first collaboration, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Instead of recreating that phantom universe, though, Byrne and Eno have used Everything to raise spirits via their own brand of secularized gospel.
Comparing the two records helps to decode the duo's approach to metaphysics. Byrne and Eno producedBush of Ghosts between the late summer of 1979 and the fall of 1980 during breaks between recording Talking Heads' definitive albums Fear of Music and Remain in Light. The pair holed up in the studio, synching and looping tapes recorded by Eno of televangelists, politicians, Arabic singers, Algerians chanting the Koran, and a Christian exorcism to the duo's hypnotic instrumental Afro-funk. Bush of Ghosts became legendary after its 1981 release, largely because the repetitive vocal samples created a hysterical effect that displayed Christianity, Islam, and politics as supremely exotic belief systems. Many believed Byrne and Eno were making a subtle audio statement about a time rife with religious fundamentalism and political crisis. Outside their studio doors, as the Reagan era dawned, the public was debating evangelical power, culture wars, and Iran. Sound familiar?
But Byrne and Eno didn't merely concern themselves with the physical world. They also used those phantom voice recordings and repetitive rhythms to create a ritual zone based on their modern musical concepts of spirituality. That same sense of spiritual ownership informs the casual gospel style in which the pair has immersed Everything. A self-proclaimed "evangelical atheist," Eno details in the liner notes how he fell in love with traditional gospel while recording with Talking Heads, and how he sees it as "conveying the act of surrender more than the act of worship." That attitude of surrender permeates the album.
Produced via the digital ether of file sharing, Everything isn't completely devoid of references to the artists' past work — the slow tempo and droning vocals of "Wanted for Life" are reminiscent of Eno's early-'70s hit "Burning Airlines Give You So Much More," while "Poor Boy" sports Remain in Light–era percussion, phased bass, and detuned guitar. But the album's overarching flavor is laid-back and celestial, whether in the wistful country mode of "My Big Nurse," the horn-inflected soul of "Life Is Long," or the classical style of the album's title track.
Byrne's vocals are key. He grounds each song's narrative with the falsetto he made famous with Talking Heads — the voice of a man-child finding constant wonder in the paradoxes of the world. When he applies that delivery to lines like "Heaven knows what keeps mankind alive," from the resolute "Home," the effect is chilling.
"One Fine Day," Everything's lush highlight, is based on Dave Eggers' book What Is the What?, which details a young refugee's hallucinatory and horrific journey from Darfur to Atlanta. Eno imbues the soaring track with rhythmic backing vocal patterns that evoke Africa as Byrne croons both of "the wanderin' eye inside my heart" and how "we can use the stars to guide the way."
Goosebumps again. Byrne and Eno have refined their art form from a conjuring of ghosts to a way of seeing the spirit in everything.