By Chris Bell
Three years in the making, David Byrne and St. Vincent’s collaborative effort, Love This Giant, is finally upon us. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this album is the expectations it generated among listeners. If the individual careers of David Byrne and St. Vincent have taught us anything, it is that throwing expectations upon them is a hopeless endeavor. Yet, nonetheless, the prospect of the two working together conjured up those expectations. In a recent interview with The Guardian, Byrne and Clark acknowledged this much, with Byrne saying, “…they immediately think, ‘Oh, it’s an art project.'”
I have to admit being empathetic with that reaction. David Byrne’s career was born out of the same stuff that created the avant garde No Wave movement in New York. This is the same movement championed by Glenn Branca and his 100 Guitar Orchestra; a group that would serve as training ground for artists like Thurston Moore and Annie Clark (before she would become St. Vincent). Knowing these origins, one can’t help to immediately associate any project between Byrne and Clark with spacey, experimental guitars and music that is accessible to only the most pretentious of music critics. Even after the two announced that the album would be largely based around brass band arrangements, the knee jerk reaction is to think this is just another kooky thing the two were throwing into the mix. So, now Love This Giant has arrived and I am more than pleased to say that David Byrne and Annie Clarke have turned every expectation on its ear by doing the unthinkable; making pop music.
To be fair, there was evidence in David Byrne’s catalog that this could have been coming. On 2010’s collaboration with Danger Mouse, Here Lies Love, Byrne was making music more suited for the club than a Chelsea gallery (with a special appearance from St. Vincent, no less). The 2008 collaboration with Brian Eno,Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, was as close to a mainstream pop record as those two guys will likely ever come when working together. The music of Love This Giant has an extremely close cousin just slightly deeper in Byrne’s solo cataloge. 1997’s Feelings spawned a mini hit with “Miss America” but was received by critics with a collective yawn.
Personally, I found that record to be a highlight of Byrne’s post-Talking Heads work. He wasn’t trying to change to world or be otherwise overtly self-important. Feelings was David Byrne enjoying himself in the process of making music and it showed. That is the single best description one can offer of the work here on Love This Giant. These songs are certainly centered around brass arrangements. Rather than being present as a silly distraction, the horns drive this collection of warm and fuzzy pop songs. The guitar work that Byrne and Clarke are so heralded for is barely visible through most of this record. The result is an album that is the most accessible and fun work that either artist has produced in years (and in Clarke’s case, ever).
The closest reference I can summon to describe the songs of Love This Giant is the latter day work of Andy Partridge with XTC. This isn’t a far stretch for Byrne, whose best pop music has always been a stone’s throw away from XTC’s most interesting work. Songs like “Dinner For Two” and “Optimist” would have found comfortable homes on either of XTC’s final two Apple Venus records. Similarly, the music on Love This Giant also recalls the deconstructive pop elements of the Dirty Projectors, perhaps as a remaining influence from Byrne’s work with that band on the 2009 charity compilation Dark Was The Night. “Forest Awakes” and “Lightning” both exhibit some of Dave Longstreth’s quality noise collisions in a way that makes one wish Byrne and Clark had been present during the making of the Projectors’ latest record.
In another surprise to expectations, some fans may be dismayed that Byrne and Clarke don’t focus much on being duet partners on Love This Giant. Outside of the lead single, “Who”, the rest of the album plays with the two trading off lead vocals. This isn’t to say, however, that the record sounds like to separate EP’s mashed together. Instead, it would appear that rather than toiling over individual notes, David and Annie spent the three years figuring out how to play together as a single unit. Though they trade singing duties, the music is of a piece.
As a matter of face, Love This Giant makes it sound as if these two have been playing together for a lifetime, with neither artist seeming all that concerned with forcing their own signature sound onto the music. Much like Feelings, it isn’t hard to tell that they had a lot of fun making music together and weren’t inhibited at all by those pesky expectations. For Annie, it pays off in spades. Unlike her previous work as St. Vincent, Clarke sounds far less manufactured here. I’ve always had this nagging inclination that Annie Clarke really wants to be taken seriously as an artist. What makes her a fantastic musician isn’t all those overwrought explorations with space or overthought lyrical concepts, but that she is genuinely likeable has a great, pure feel for music. Somehow, working with David Byrne got Annie to lay back and be herself a little more. As a result, her lead vocal on a song “Ice Age” is more intriguing than any of those silly characters she was creating on the last St. Vincent record.
Emotional detachment has been a complaint about David Byrne since the very beginning of his career. Talking Heads bassist Tina Weymouth once said that Byrne was “incapable” of loving the bandmembers like they loved him. That aloofness is not only a signature of Byrne’s persona, but now an archetype for modern songwriters that don’t haven enough personality to be interesting in their own right. So, perhaps the most surprising aspect of Love This Giant is Byrne’s emotional engagement in the songs. It needs to be said, David Byrne and St. Vincent are downright hopeful on this record. From the aptly titled “Optimist” to the fantastic album closer “Outside Of Time And Space”, this is the most emotionally engaged I have ever heard David Byrne on tape. Perhaps as a benefit of the laid back nature of the music, this positive attitude matches perfectly with the arrangements.
Altogether, the material on Love This Giant proves that David Byrne and St. Vincent don’t have to sacrifice quality for accessibility. Perhaps as a testament to the talent and experience of the two, it seems as if Byrne and Clarke can churn out perfect music without hardly trying. The true testament to David Byrne and St. Vincent however, is that they are so good they can make it seem as if they weren’t trying at all. Love This Giant is a perfectly entertaining record that will likely stand of one of the highest achievements of 2012 precisely because you don’t have to be an artist to enjoy it.
“Dinner For Two”
“The Forest Awakes”