Byrne’s latest displays no fear of classical music

Via The Star Ledger

By Star Ledger

(Nonesuch)***1/2

On the surface, David Byrne singing opera makes about as much sense as Pavarotti tackling punk.

But the flamboyantly neurotic ex-Talking Heads leader (and founder of the world music label Luaka Bop) applies his thin, vibrato-free voice to two arias on this new album. He duets with Rufus Wainwright on "Au fond du temple saint" (from Bizet's "The Pearl Fishers"), and handles "Un di felice, eterea" (from Verdi's "La Traviata") on his own. No one at The Met will feel his job is in danger, but Byrne pulls it off, singing with convincing emotion, even though the strain on his voice is obvious.

Musically, Byrne stays on more familiar ground on most other tracks, sticking to minimalistic rock, accented by Latin percussion and imaginatively arranged strings and horns. But his singing -- frequently cushioned by the strings -- is warmer than ever, even though his lyrics strike his usual, artful mix of the mundane observations and deep thoughts.

"Empire" is a protest song where Byrne sarcastically proclaims: "Young artists and writers, please heed the call/What's good for business is good for us all." He squirms in "Civilization" like a young man attending his first dinner party: "Isn't she here?/What time is it now?/Is this the right place?/Do I fit with her crowd?/I'm gonna be a civilized man someday." "Glad" is a twisted self-help anthem: "I'm glad when I get my girlfriends' names confused ... I'm glad I'm a mess/I'm glad you don't mind/I'm glad that you're better than me."

Musically, there are traces of everything Byrne has done throughout his career. The jagged rhythms and sing-song melody of "Pirates" is reminiscent of early Talking Heads, while the quirky funk-rock number "Dialog Box" sounds like it could have come from one of the last few Heads albums. Tracks like "She Only Sleeps" and "Why" have the kind of exotic dance beats that have filled Byrne's solo albums.

On the endlessly entertaining "Grown Backwards," he puts it all together -- and then adds opera.

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