By Shannon Zimmerman
No sense burying the lead: David Byrne wants to be an opera star. How else to explain the inclusion on his latest CD of not one but two well-known arias: "Un di Felice, Eterea," from Verdi's "La Traviata," and "Au Fond du Temple Saint," from Bizet's "The Pearl Fishers"?
Byrne is aided and abetted on the latter track by confirmed opera addict Rufus Wainwright, an accomplished vocalist whose winsome tenor sweetens -- some might say rescues -- Byrne's more, um, unorthodox vocal style. But intriguing though they are, the arias are really just curios here, tuneful opportunities for Byrne to ply his favorite musical trade: mingling pop art with high art.
The erstwhile Talking Head has been doing that for years, of course, and the rest of "Grown Backwards" works the angle much more successfully. A cover of avant-country outfit Lambchop's "The Man Who Loved Beer" glides by on a stately string arrangement, and on the wry "She Only Sleeps," Byrne croons the praises of a girlfriend gone wild over a minimalist tango beat. "Glass, Concrete & Stone" finds the singer lacing one of his patented naive melodies through dark and exotic polyrhythms.
Byrne has been performing that particular trick since his Heads heyday. And while nothing on "Grown Backwards" rises to the level of, say, "Remain in Light" (the Heads' 1980 masterpiece), give the guy credit for staying ambitious -- and for keeping it weird.
Just don't encourage him on the opera thing. That way, one suspects, lies disaster.