By N. Lanthier
Last Thursday morning, the former Talking Heads member David Byrne woke up, did laundry, got a haircut, took his computer to the repair shop, had lunch with relatives and then bicycled to an office near his Manhattan home to call Vancouver for an interview.
Immediately, the iconoclastic new-waver, who translated punk rage into a more subversive challenge to authority and whose nervous stage presence suggested we were all just a meltdown away from madness, confides as though talking to a friend, sharing notions about love, his prevailing social discomfort and general confusion about some big questions.
He's got a new album to plug, of course. And as it is his most accessible solo album, he's been interviewed ceaselessly, and by now no doubt relishes veering into personal, and perhaps creative, conversational territory about the work.
But Grown Backwards invites it, too. Lyrically, it's an eccentric's open diary, and the music, for the most part, is enormously rich, with soaring strings celebrating the confessions. Gone is the herky-jerky pop-art sound. Instead, several songs -- Empire and Pirates, especially -- roll out like Broadway show tunes. The disc's two opera pieces, a song from La Traviata, sung in Latin, and a duet by Georges Bizet sung with Rufus Wainwright, are both fraught with emotional power. They fit seamlessly into the 52-year-old's remarkable new album.
"I think they were the crowbar that I used to open myself up emotionally and vocally," Byrne has said of the operatic pieces.
Glass, Concrete and Stone -- "It's just a house not a home" -- is the moving and gorgeous opening song. It was written for the film about illegal immigrants, Dirty Pretty Things, so it's surprising to hear Byrne, who seems the ultimate New Yorker -- he's even hosted a television show -- admit that he drew on his own sense of rootlessness for the devastating song.
"Yeah, far more than I would like to admit. I wonder where I belong all the time. Especially in the present political climate."
No doubt like countless sensitive Americans, Byrne feels a sense of disassociation from the Rambo political machine at the helm of his country. His grandiose Empire is an utterly ironic patriotic song.
"I kept coming up with what I thought were patriotic cliches. The nation as super-solid, unyielding, unconquerable. I find that song problematic, because it's so ironic, so much of what I don't believe. Yet being the type of anthem that it is -- you kind of get swept up in it. As a singer you end up kind of emoting as if you believe it. It's really frightening, the power that music has that way."
The album features a cover of like-minded chamber pop band Lambchop's The Man Who Loved Beer, which despite its buoyant arrangement, expresses utter helplessness about violence and "the wrong which roams the earth."
"I'm more optimistic than that," says Byrne. But then he quietly describes a spooky observation about the human condition. "Humans can fairly easily be lead astray," he said. "People have within them the potential to be whipped up into a violent fury. It's like a fever that sweeps through them.
"And then it can pass and they're fairly decent human beings again. I find this really confusing: We'd like to think that there are bad people and good people; that sort of simplifies things. But I don't know if there are. I think good people can be bad, too. And then they can be good again. It's like a fever. So, there's a bit of optimism there, but wow, it's a weird kind of optimism."
In the song Why, Byrne, who has separated from his wife of 15 years, sings, "I feel an empty space where love could be."
He's a romantic, he tells me, yet proceeds to describe a kind genetically or molecularly powered concept of love.
"I like to think that song alludes to the unified field theory that Einstein was searching for, where just as particles spin around a nucleus and planets circle the sun, maybe relationships have to be what they are in a similar way.
"And the person you end up with or meet -- it's perhaps not quite fate, but maybe not quite so much of an accident, or act of personal will, as we think it is."
The zippy pop song Glad, a lengthy list of flaws -- "I'm glad I got lost/I'm glad I'm confused/I'm glad when the sex is not that great/I'm glad I'm a mess" -- celebrates his own average-ness and is an incredibly honest outpouring. Byrne says that, creatively, he's less inhibited and will reveal sides of himself he never would in social situations.
"I am much less self-conscious and tend to get carried away on stage and do little dances and things I would never do if I was out in a club. Nothing against my parents but I felt that I wasn't given a solid grounding in social behavior. It's kind of like, 'What do I do here?' " he laughs. "Well, just imitate what other people are doing and you can figure it out later. That's kind of worked for me. It does make me a bit of an anthropologist from Mars."
Success hasn't granted him the freedom to act as he wishes.
"It does creatively. But socially, no it doesn't make me free and easy. I still feel as socially inept as I ever did. Creatively it does, though, which is good enough. I'll take that."
And if there was a meeting of David Byrne today and the David Byrne of 30 years ago, what would the conversation be like?
"Ooh, I think they'd be really suspicious of one another. They might not like one another. The Byrne from some years ago was maybe a little bit more willfully peculiar and I might find that a little annoying," he says. "Nonetheless, it produces some interesting stuff."