By Seth Limmer
David Byrne has spent more than 20 years wrestling with the connection between words and music. If on the first two Talking Heads albums, Byrne couldn’t cram enough of his quirky observations into chapter, verse and chorus, by 1979’s Fear of Music the head of the Heads seemed to discover the importance of a little less conversation. By 1981, Byrne was working with fellow difficult genius Brian Eno to put other people’s voices against the backdrop of the music they created on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. And while Byrne never penned a song as pretentiously serious yet as seriously vapid as “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da,” he nonetheless has shared these past few decades in fellow songsmith Sumner’s search for the proper connection between thoughtful lyrics and moving music.
As part of that voyage of discovery, Lead us not into Temptation is not the first soundtrack album David Byrne has released; he won an Oscar for his part in scoring The Last Emperor, and won forgiveness from his fans for the weak music that accompanied his own quaint picture, True Stories. While both efforts fall under the far-too-wide category of “soundtrack”, the latter album is a collection of [poor] Talking Heads songs that accompanied a [poorer] movie, while the former is the [brilliant] instrumental work that served as its [more brilliant] film’s score. Lead us not into Temptation is much closer in genus to Byrne’s Grammy-garnering effort: not only is the film Temptation produced by the same pair that brought us Emperor, but Byrne approaches the subject of this soundtrack very much as a musical score for a piece of art.
“At its best it almost invisibly blends with the background sounds of the film—the sounds of the barge, the docks, the plates, the sex, the dishes … maybe at its best it’s not even noticeable as ‘music’ but as an extension, a musical interpretation of the ambient sounds,” explains Byrne of his latest project. And his assessment of his work is mostly correct: Lead us not into Temptation is an incredible sonic portrait of a Scotland I have never visited, but can only imagine. In this fashion, Temptation is a return of sorts to Byrne’s roots; although perennially associated with New York circa 1977, David was born in Dumbarton, Scotland in 1952. In putting together this musical tribute to the land of his birth, Byrne not only paid close attention to the Scottish Beat movement in whose milieu Lead us not into Temptation takes place, but also relied upon Scottish musicians from Mogwai, Belle and Sebastian, and Appendix Out to help him hone his musical homage.
The combination of musicians Byrne assembled makes for certain magical moments. Especially in the album’s early going, the collaborations are so strong that they prove that songs, well-written and focused, do not need lyrics to make their point, just suggestive titles that mark out their territory and leave the rest open to the imagination. “Body in a River” is a haunting, moody piece whose piano line forecasts disaster yet hints at an air of redemption. Similarly, “Seaside Smokes” evokes a gin-drizzled vision of life on the docks; it too is menacing, yet with an inexplicably uplifting lilt. These two tracks, along with “Mnemonic Discordance”—which is certainly discordant although it fails to bring anything in particular to mind—are reminiscent of much of Tom Waits’s richly textured and highly suggestive work from the early 1980s: the listener is left with a definite picture before him, although there’s a bit too much fog and mist to see all the particulars with clarity.
Even as the album first three songs—they are not mere tracks, but coherent pieces—create high expectations for Lead us not into Temptation, it does not take long for Byrne’s lofty vision to sink into cinematic drudgery. For better and for worse, Byrne develops a musical theme in “Canal Life” that floats its buoyed and boring little head above water a bit too often throughout the rest of the soundtrack. Heavy on the strings and low in the impact, “Locks & Barges” seems to dam the flow of the music even more. Despite a punchy, jazzy romp that is driven by some excellent fretless work on “Haitian Fight Song”, the rest of the instrumental music on Temptation seems too willing to fade into the background too much like the tide. Like so much of the work Byrne has put between his teeth since severing his connection with the Heads, Lead us not into Temptation begins with the great hope of a new work of genius, but in the end leaves one feeling like Byrne again has fallen short of his promise.
Or so it seems. For the master of irony and unreality has one more secret in store. After enduring bleak and boring tone poems like “Inexorable”, “Ineluctable”, and the inexcusably lifeless “Sex on the Docks”, Temptation‘s penultimate track titled “Speechless” seemed destined to be another soporific sloucher of a song. But only Byrne could take a song with this title and make it—the fourteenth song on an album of instrumentals—the first track with vocals. On “Speechless”, Byrne could be mumbling, slurring, or speaking Scottish—I think he’s humming for sure at one point—and it’s impossible for me to figure out at all what he’s trying to say. Unless, of course, that’s precisely what he’s trying to say.
After an album overfilled with sax and violins, Byrne seems to make some peace of the matter of words and music on Lead us not into Temptation‘s closing piece, “The Great Western Road”. In fitting commentary to an hour’s worth of sometimes enchanting, sometimes evaporating instrumentals, Byrne makes a final conclusion in both words and music to this film about the life of writers who have to paint their pictures without the benefit of musical accompaniment. Singing, “The man sticks his fingers inside of his mouth / The words are stuck in there, he fishes them out / Whispers and mumbles, statements and verse / Curses and love songs for nobody else / Man takes his pencil and puts down his thoughts”. Byrne talks about the great path of self-discovery known as authorship in a song named for the very thoroughfare of Dumbarton on which he was born. And maybe I read too much into music that the composer believes may be nothing more than “ambient sounds”, but it seems as if in the albums closing seconds Byrne finally summons himself to the task for which he is best suited, namely combining words with his music. For as the sounds of Scotland fade away into the fade-out, Byrne closes out Lead us not into Temptation with the very vocal reminder to himself about living the life of the man who puts pen to paper: “Wake up, it’s all that you are”.