By Adrian Agacer
In David Byrne’s new book How Music Works, he states how musical creation does not follow the romantic notion of a madman’s libido driving him to create an artistic production in an explosive ecstasy of passion. Instead, Byrne offers a slight turn from this notion: “I believe that we unconsciously and instinctively make work to fit preexisting formats.” “Passion” still exists in the music, but the emotions are filled into a form best suited for the particular time or place. Byrne argues it is “the space, the platform, and the software [that] ‘makes’ the art, the music, or whatever.” A piece of art is entirely dependent on a given “milieu.” Even the very instruments that a given culture creates music with, Byrne argues, “were carefully fashioned, selected, tailored, and played to best suit the physical, acoustic, and social situation.” It is a question of space and time.
The recent collaboration between David Byrne and St. Vincent, which culminated with the release of Love This Giant, arose from similar creative conditions that Byrne himself wrote of. When Byrne and Annie Clark (St. Vincent) were asked if they were interested in performing together at the Housing Works bookstore, Clark was initially worried what instruments would best suit the acoustics of the given bookstore with a small PA system. What she initially came up with was horns. The issue of the particular venue and the sounds that lend well to the space is at the center of this collaboration — first the venue, then the songs. That is why there is an overwhelming deluge of brass intertwined in an all-inclusive orgy on Love This Giant.
All brass everything! Other than programmed drums, some guitar, and the occasional bass, Love This Giant is primarily composed of brass instrumentation. Whether it is the awkward jerky movements of “Who,” the indeterminate careening of “The Forest Awakes,” or the afrobeat brass work of “The One Who Broke Your Heart,” brass is found everywhere in varying forms. Wherever you look, there is brass — underneath the carpet, hiding in closet corners, inside the refrigerator — they are there and they will scream at your face without remorse. While a brief listen of Love This Giant may give the impression that the album’s a simple case of “silly concept rock pretension,”Love This Giant is, at its heart, a straightforward pop record. “Optimist” could easily be a VH1-wave Top 40 hit.
The brass arrangements only exist because of the particular conditions that were in front of Byrne and Clark upon the project’s conception (i.e., the acoustics of a bookstore). This brings up the major flaw of Love This Giant: it feels like an exercise. The songs sound and feel a little too much like St. Vincent and David Byrne if they were high on brass, almost making the album a parody. Nothing is excitingly radical nor is anything unpolished or poorly composed. The album is more of a workshop for two of pop music’s more creative minds to work with a toolkit (brass instrumentation) that is, for the most part, ignored. “The One Who Broke Your Heart,” which features two bands (Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra and The Dap-Kings), is drowned in so much brass and saxophone instrumentation that it gives the impression that the entirety of the album is nothing but an exercise of “Oulipian restraint.” But while Georges Perec’s A Void omits the usage of the vowel “e” in order to convey the author’s inability to speak of his mother (mere) and his father (père) after losing the two in World War II, I am entirely uncertain of the “purpose” ofLove This Giant’s restraint, other than the conditions that sparked the impetus of the album.
Maybe the “point” of Love This Giant’s instrumentation, in reference to the album title’s nod to Whitman (Byrne pretty much explained it in a recent Pitchfork interview), is to uncover, as Byrne sings on “I Should Watch TV,” the“weird things inside of me” (“me” being the Giant and the Giant being the collective human body/culture) by simultaneously placing brass instruments into the limelight and out of their minor status in order to thoroughly investigate humanity’s collective musical production. By collaborating, Byrne and Clark are already making the album biunivocal and multitudinous (Whitman: “I am large, I contain multitudes”). The brass instruments are constantly speaking against each other but somehow work together toward a tonal unity that is quintessentially pop. The instruments melt together just as Byrne yearns for on “I Should Watch TV” (“The more I loss myself/ The more it set me free,” “How am I not your brother/ How are you not like me”), to lose oneself in mass culture and subsequently the lives, anxieties, and desires of other people.
Or perhaps the album’s instrumentation exists out of mere necessity, as Byrne argues and is easily illustrated by the collaboration’s genealogy. The instruments’ swerving in and out of existence (“Weekend In The Dust”) and their steady paced river running (“The Forest Awakes”) reflect the very impetus of the album: the place and time of the bookstore and the connection of concrete space and artistic production. As Clark sings on “The Forest Awakes,” “The song is a gift/ A song is road/ A road is a face/ A face is a time/ And a time is a place” — all is subject to place.