By Spencer Owen
Call me crazy, but it seems to me that David Byrne likes having friends. Or at least, he seems to have a lot of friends who like him. What makes me say this? Is it the lyrical content of Look into the Eyeball, Byrne's sixth solo record, that gives it away? Is it the joyous quality of his voice as he sings a Spanish duet with Nrü of Café Tacuba? Or is it the fact that exactly forty-nine (49) guest musicians are credited in the liner notes?
If I were you, I'd probably go with the latter observation. I'm not sure if any solo album really warrants 49 people, but Byrne tries his damnedest to come up with good uses for all of them. First of all, he's David Byrne, the charismatic, iconic former frontman of one of the most influential bands of the last 25 years. It's hard to argue with the man. Secondly, even with his multitude of backup musicians, he's the only person that plays guitar.
And third, 19 of the guests here play a string instrument.
You probably don't need to read 19 names to figure out that much of Look into the Eyeball is coated with stringed accompaniment, often in the forefront. But this is no chamber music album. For the most part, it consists of upbeat, funk-laden pop songs, with lyrics that rarely penetrate past one's eyeball, but rhythms that bounce and shake for better or worse. It's a step back from the loose concept of Feelings; there are only a couple of feelings present here, and they either relate to the music or are extremely cryptic.
Bittersweet melody has become one of Byrne's strongest songwriting suits over the past decade, and it isn't spared here. "The Great Intoxicator" refers to music as its namesake, with looped and organic Latin percussion providing a steady pulse as the dynamic strings aid Byrne in his graceful and melodic expression of the sentiment. Unexpectedly, though, some of the record's best moments come when Byrne strips away the rhythmic accessories and relies on basic orchestral backing, as with "The Revolution," a gorgeous acoustic guitar-and-violin ballad that again uses music as part of its lyrical imagery.
And yet, the majority of the album still relies on primal, swinging grooves. The obvious single, "Like Humans Do," features nonsensical lyrics akin to Little Creatures-era Talking Heads about doing things, uh... like humans do. Such as "achin'," "shakin'," and "breakin'," as the chorus informs us. But as ridiculous as the lyrics get, Byrne's melody is undeniably infectious, and his rhythm will no doubt get some appendage of yours tapping. The song also stands as the best example of the album's use of strings and horns for texture — an entire orchestra seems to sit in the back of this backyard jam session, and it seems perfectly in place. "Broken Things" is Eyeball's musical peak, though, as the raw global funk aesthetic that pervaded his 1994 self-titled record comes back into play. The violins wisely sit this one out.
After "Descondido Soy," the aforementioned Spanish-language duet with Nrü, the album slumps — specifically with "Neighborhood," a coy, 70's lite-funk tune employing an innumerable amount of clichéd disco aesthetics. Despite this misstep, though, Byrne gets back on his feet with a few more tunes that, while never truly living up to the Eyeball's first half, wring out the kind of rhythmic and melodic glee only Byrne can pull off. Maybe that's why so many pals flocked to play with him; he still has a lot of fun in the studio.