By Michael Cramer
Despite the fact that he's spent the past 16 years as a solo artist, David Byrne will probably forever be known as "that guy from Talking Heads." Unlike the groundbreaking material recorded by the Heads (More Songs About Buildings And Food, Remain in Light), Byrne's solo material has remained largely ignored, both by critics and by the public. While it's certainly true that Byrne has never released a solo album that ranks with his best Talking Heads work, he can generally be relied upon to deliver at least a few great tracks per album. Such is certainly the case with his latest, Grown Backwards, his debut release on Nonesuch Records--the folks who brought you Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. While the album largely retreads ground that Byrne has covered in the past, it provides enough new surprises to make it a worthwhile listen, at least for the devoted Talking Heads fan.
The most notable stylistic element on Grown Backwards is Byrne's frequent utilization of the Tosca String Orchestra, with whom he also worked on 2001's Look Into the Eyeball. Much of the album is dominated by lush orchestral arrangements, which result in some of the most conventionally "pretty" music that Byrne has ever recorded. When he strays from the orchestral mode, however, Byrne tends to repeat himself, as on the guitar-driven tracks "She Only Sleeps" and "Dialog Box" that bear an uncanny resemblance to songs found on his self-titled 1994 album. Similarly, Byrne seems to have reached a lyrical dead-end: he continues to rely on the same ironic approach to his pet subjects--consumer society, government, technology--that he began on the first Talking Heads album way back in 1977, Talking Heads: 77; "Empire," with its implicitly ironic praise of big business and right-wing philosophies, operates on almost the exact same level as 77's "Don't Worry About the Government," only without that track's irresolvable ambiguity. Most of the other lyrics on Grown Backwards likewise come across as repetitions and rehashing of themes that Byrne has dealt with in the past, and cast an unpleasant sense of staleness and stagnancy over the album.
Lyrical and musical repetitions notwithstanding, Grown Backwards does have a few tricks up its sleeve. The most prominent of these are two opera arias featured on the album, "Au fond du temple saint" from Bizet's The Pearlfishers--a duet with opera aficionado Rufus Wainwright--and "Un di felice, eterea" from Verdi's La Traviata. While they are awkward to some degree, these two tracks provide the sense of unexpected weirdness and playfulness that the album needs to stay afloat. Several of Byrne's originals work quite well too, particularly the string-driven opener, "Glass, Concrete & Stone," and the uncharacteristically melodic "Why." "Why" proves that Byrne can still write a beautiful song when he wants to, and Grown Backwards fares best when he abandons topicality and aims straight for that melodically-driven beauty.
Grown Backwards lacks the consistency and energy of 2001's Look Into the Eyeball, but nonetheless provides a picture of an artist in flux, struggling against repetition and searching for new forms of musical expression. As an album, it often seems only half-formed, as though Byrne had run out of inspiration halfway through and had fallen back on comfortably familiar ways of working. Hopefully, such regressiveness is only temporary on Byrne's part, and his more experimental tendencies will give way to a more fully realized work the next time around.