By Scott Galupo
What to make of David Byrne, jack of sundry styles, master of none? On "Grown Backwards," the ex-Talking Heads innovator tries French pop, electronica, bossa nova, chamber music and Broadway.
For maximum experimental zigzag, the bohemian Mr. Byrne even tackles a couple of arias from Verdi ("Un di Felice") and Bizet ("Au Fond du Temple Saint"), singing in belabored Romance tongues. On the former, he duets with Montreal native Rufus Wainwright, who presumably provided guidance on French pronunciation.
Some of "Backwards" is plain uncategorizable. It piles so many sounds and dream impressions on top of one another, it's both startlingly fun and crashingly incoherent. Clocking in at one hour, it's also an indigestible sprawl. As one expects from Mr. Byrne, "Backwards" has plenty of eccentric humor and childlike observations around which big ideas and weird obsessions are lurking.
"Skin that covers me from head to toe/Except a couple tiny holes and openings/Where the city's blowin' in and out/This is what's it all about," he sings on the exotic ballad "Glass, Concrete & Stone," leavened by Jane Scarpantoni's droning cello. "I made a church of your hairdo/and I made a shrine of your legs," goes "The Other Side of This Life." On the loping, finger-snapping "She Only Sleeps," Mr. Byrne waxes cool and proprietary about an untamable girlfriend: "She might dance all night/In a topless bar/Fool around, go too far/But I don't mind." Mr. Byrne busies "Backwards" with a gloppy string sextet and horn arrangements that, more often than not, get in the way. On the antiwar rumination "Empire," the trumpet-led brass sounds like a suburban Fourth of July parade. Incidentally, on the subject of war, which comes up again on "Astronaut," Mr. Byrne is merciful.
In the liner notes, he says that during the recording of the album, "there were two wars, one out of revenge and the second to consolidate oil interests." "Dialog Box" is a reminder that Mr. Byrne, in his Talking Heads days, was one funky dude. But it's too much to ask of artists such as Mr. Byrne to throw bones of previous glories. They're too far buried in the demimonde of avant-gardism. "Grown Backwards" is unfailingly odd and only occasionally unlistenable; at times, its orchestrations are convincingly pretty. Still, one can't be blamed for suspecting that David Byrne is at a point in his career where he simply doesn't care what his audience thinks.